The words we choose help shape attitudes and perceptions. This list includes common terms and definitions used when talking about disabilities. As always, it’s best to ask someone which term they prefer.

A note on outdated language: while you may still encounter the word “handicap,” this term is no longer acceptable. Advocates have been successful in removing the word from parking signs and other public areas. “Accessible” is the preferred term in those situations.  Additionally, the term “mental retardation” is no longer acceptable, even as a medical diagnosis. It should never be used.

The discrimination of and social prejudice against people with disabilities. Examples would be thinking able bodies are superior and seeing disability as something that needs to be fixed.

A general term to describe the ability of something to be used by anyone. This term focuses on usability, not on a person’s disability, and can describe a wide range of things from parking spaces to websites.

Letting others know what is important to and for you. You can take part in what’s important in your life, either on your own or with people you choose to help you. Advocacy can include personal advocacy, helping others, or public policy advocacy.

Any item, device, or piece of equipment used to maintain or improve the independence and function of people with disabilities and seniors in all aspects of life. It can range from large fonts in printed materials to customized computer software.

A developmental disability originating in infancy. Autism and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development characterized by difficulties in social interaction, language dysfunction and repetitive behaviors.

Describes a person with complete loss of sight. For others, use terms such as visually impaired or a person with low vision.

Describes a person with profound or complete hearing loss. Many people who are hearing impaired have mild to moderate hearing loss that may or may not be corrected with amplification. There is no uniform terminology, so it is best to ask the person which term is suitable.

An intellectual or physical disability that occurs at birth or before age 22, is expected to be lifelong, and affects one or more major life activities.

A physical or cognitive impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.

Treating someone unfairly and differently because they belong to a certain group or category.

Describes a chromosomal irregularity that results in a delay in physical, intellectual and language development.

This style embraces disability as an integral part of a person’s identity. The disability shapes who they are and thus cannot possibly be separated from them. Examples include “disabled community” and “autistic person.”

The practice or policy of providing equal access to opportunities and resources for people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized.

Refers to people of short stature, below 4 feet 10 inches. Groups focusing on this issue are often divided between using “little person” or “dwarf,” as some people are offended by those terms and others are not.

An umbrella term for different conditions that affect how individuals act, think, feel, or perceive the world. Specific diagnoses should be used whenever possible. Mental illness is not the same as a disability, though the two diagnoses can co-exist.

The range of differences in individual brain function and behavioral traits. These variations are not viewed as a weakness or something that needs to be fixed or cured.

This style puts the person before the disability and demonstrates that someone’s disability is just part of who they are and not a definition of who they are. Examples include “girl with spina bifida” or “boy with cerebral palsy.”

The policy or practice of making only a symbolic effort. For example: including a person with a disability on your board in order to appear more diverse but without legitimately listening to what they have to say. 

People use wheelchairs for independent mobility and the equipment is considered part of their personal space. People who use wheelchairs have varying abilities and often different disabilities. Do not refer to someone who uses a wheelchair as “wheelchair-bound” or “bound to a wheelchair.”