politically correct thing to say to disabled

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This post is about the politically correct term for disabled and politically correct term for special needs. It’s for everyone out there like my friend who asked me to write this post because she was just confused by all the talk out there about what to call us!

So here we go.

The Trajectory of the Disabled

I’ve been a person with a disability for most of my life, and a member of the Down syndrome community (thanks to my daughter!) for over a decade. In between my life lived with disabilities and being a parent of a child with a disability, I’ve seen an awful lot of upset over words that are directed towards the disability community, however inadvertently. I myself have been one of those that have been upset.

It happens something like this with the Down syndrome community:

Someone famous says something offensive (- usually involving the word, “retard”)

  • The Down syndrome community bellows
  • The famous person or situation or whatever apologizes
  • The Down syndrome  community simmers down.
  • …and repeat

The Greater Disability Community:

With the greater (cross-disability) community, it’s more of a matter of never ending-ness. It’s the constant little pin-pricks of being called what we specifically ask to NOT be called – from the “handi-capable”, “special needs”, the references to “wheelchair bound”, and the “differently-abled.”

Everyone is pretty sick of it. The Down syndrome community is sick of it, the greater (cross-disability) disability is sick of it, and there we go.

What is the Politically Correct Term for Disabled People?

I know – just like most of you do as well – that there is a certain amount of weariness felt by members outside of our community.

That is, people outside of our community who care about us and our kids, people who want to be our friends and allies, people who want to do and say the right thing.

And the weariness easily switches to wariness.

Like, nervousness about saying something offensive.

When is a word okay? How is a world okay? If the word is okay with YOU, will it be okay with THEM? Is that person over there going to jump on me?

But wait – YOU said it was okay, YOU say that yourself -? Arrrrrghhhh!

I completely get it and I don’t think there are easy answers because I think so much of this depends on individual preference. There are no universal agreed-upon guidelines. That makes it tricky, you know, for allies to the disabled/Down syndrome parent community.

They say “people with disabilities” and you say “disabled.”

But that girl using a wheelchair says “gimp” or “crip”.

You are not a “person with deafness”, you are a “deaf person” but my daughter Moxie is not a “Down syndrome child”; she’s a “person with Down syndrome.”

It’s person first language…until it’s identify-first.

That is, it’s person-first language – a person with a disability – until the person sees disability as an identity, then it becomes identify first.

Identify-first is: deaf person, blind person, disabled person.

Then you get the really fun stuff: Archaic Words!

Those are words that have evolved but still carry some of their original meaning.

Moron, idiot, cretin, mongo all fall under that – as well as retard. So, what do you do? Do you say none of the words? What if you want to use the actual meaning of the word in a correct context, like “retard growth”?

What if you forget?

What if you never knew?

What if you SUCK and just MESS UP and someone catches you and you are proved to be a COMPLETELY INSENSITIVE and HURTFUL HUMAN BEING?!!!!!!

Oh, you monster.


No easy answers. I don’t know what to say, really, because I know if I tell you something, someone else will be telling you something different.

And then the person over in that group over there is going to tell you it’s all balderdash anyway

So, what IS the politically correct term for the disabled? “Special Needs”?

No. Don’t call us “special needs.” Our needs are not “special”, they are human. With that in mind, some basic guidelines for politically correct and the disabled:

  1. “Special needs” WAS an educational term, not a disability term. Now, it’s just a term that you should be staying way the hell away from  (see this post)
  2. “Disability” is a particular way of seeing, hearing, feeling, thinking, moving, learning, sensing, being. It’s not negative. It’s a way of experiencing the world.
  3. Nothing about “disability” indicates “ability” (see this post)
  4. Saying ‘disabled’ is fine; ‘person with a disability’ is fine too, but see how the person wants to be referred to as. Roll with their example.
  5. When you don’t know… ASK

Originally published on June 26, 2015


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    1. I’m really glad you like it! I had a lot of fun with the gifs

  1. I am a disabled person. My oldest childhood friend is a person with a disability. We are still friends. I’m allowed to call myself a spaz. Neil has to use other words to describe me. I was at an event yesterday, and some stewards were helping me up a hill. They referred to me as ‘the wheelchair’ and my four year-old shouts, ‘She’s my Mum!’ I was really proud and the dudes were embarrassed, and learned something. Worked for me.

    1. that’s so awesome/not awesome and YES. We choose the words we want to use for ourselves, not others!

    2. OMG! That’s sooooooooooo empowering.

  2. OMG that’s so annoying. People will speak about other people as they see fit, and that is that. We are all judged on how we communicate, no laws are necessary for this age old ritual.

  3. As a nephew of a Downs uncle (whom I am proudly named after), and an enthusiastic supporter of the community, long-time S.O. volunteer, etc… I have a keen interest in this topic, and a lifetime of experience.
    I can tell you that in my childhood and young adulthood I spent a LOT of time and energy being utterly disturbed by what I personally saw and heard, in terms of other peoples response to, understanding of, and interaction with my uncle Christian and other people who may be a little different from average. I mean, first of all, good God… anyone who knows any Downs person knows what a blessing these people are to the lives of everyone who knows them. I sometimes wonder… is there some genetic marker they’ll find one day that shows a link between Downs Syndrome and traits for kindness, good-humor, a sweet (if occasionally ornery) disposition, and a loving nature? When will people realize how precious our Downs community is, and how much they have to teach the rest of us about loving kindness,

  4. Stephanie says:

    Meriah, thank you for capturing and describing the angst of so many of us who wish to be sensitive in today’s turbulent social bullying environment! I was born with a profound deafness and am fortunate that I was blessed with parents who did not let that be my identity (not that there is anything wrong with it). Normally, I would never say that I am the deaf girl, I always use my name. Over the years, with a lot of self maturity I learned to share my disability so that others would not just deem me rude when I didn’t respond to them. It has led to my own personal empowerment because most of my growing up years involved me being ashamed of my ‘hearing handicapped status’ as I was mainstreamed in public schools and often the ONLY deaf person in the class. Now I recognize that those tough times made me a stronger more compassionate person. I love how you captured that a person is who they are first, and the disability, in whatever form is secondary to that. When I was growing up, my parents used to say that the kids that made fun of me didn’t have a good excuse for being the way they were and that their ‘condition’ would be far more difficult to live with as they matured (if they did at all)! Ugly is ugly and kindness prevails always!

  5. This doesn’t help someone who is looking for the politically correct term for special needs to put on their resume from a job in education back when special needs was the correct term.

    1. In that case, it’s just “disability” – students with disabilities, disability in education, etc.

  6. As a Deaf person with Parkinson’s and the father of two sons with Autism, I thank you for this well-thought out and written article. As you also know from your own experience, education is key to improving all of our lives.

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