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Don't Say "Retarded": The Proper Language to Use When Talking About a Person With a Disability


Sophie is a special education teacher with a passion for writing and travel.

All too often, I am hearing people refer to things as being "retarded." This language can be very offensive to people, especially to those with disabilities. Most people are not aware of the appropriate language to use when talking about people with special needs. I have written a brief summary of the correct language to use and have even put some quiz questions at the end for you to answer to see if you have learned anything! Get the message out there, and tell your friends it is not okay to say "retarded!"

Person-First Language

When referring to a person with a disability, the person always comes first. A person is not a disability; a person HAS a disability.

For example, a person should not be referred to as being autistic, or as being a "Downs," or as being disabled. Instead, they should be referred to as a person WITH autism, a person WITH Down Syndrome, or a person WITH a disability.

People want to be known for who they are as a person, not as a disability. For this reason, we must always put the person first and their disability second. We even need to consider whether we need to refer to the disability at all (this is discussed later).

People With Physical Disabilities

The principle of "person-first language" applies to all people with a disability, including those with a physical disability. Hence a person is not physically disabled; rather, the person HAS a physical disability.

When talking about a person with a physical disability, avoid using words such as "crippled" or "spastic." There are more appropriate terms to use. Be specific. Instead of saying a person is physically disabled, you can say a person has a spinal injury, cerebral palsy, or paraplegia.

When talking about people who use a wheelchair to get around, we can say, "He is in a wheelchair." Avoid using terms such as "wheelchair-bound" or "confined to a wheelchair." These terms suggest that being in a wheelchair is a burden or a bad thing. For some people, it is a burden; however, for many people, it is simply their way of getting around. They do not see a wheelchair as being a restrictive device that stops them from being human; it is just an alternative to walking.

People With Sensory Impairments

People with sensory impairments include those with a hearing, or vision, impairment.

When referring to people with a vision impairment, we say, "She has a vision impairment," as opposed to, "She is blind." One reason for this is, again, the person-first principle. Also, the term "blind" suggests a person cannot see at all. There are many people with vision impairments who may have some sight, but not enough to be able to function without a guide dog or cane.

Describing people with a hearing impairment is a little more complicated. Generally, people are referred to as HAVING a hearing impairment. This includes people who have some loss of hearing and those who have no hearing whatsoever.

Some people with hearing impairments belong to the Deaf Community. People who see themselves as Deaf believe that being Deaf, and using Sign Language to communicate, is no different from communicating in English, French, or Japanese. It's simply a different language, rather than a disability. In these cases, you can refer to a person as BEING Deaf (with a capital D) rather than as having a hearing impairment. If you are unsure whether a person with a hearing impairment identifies themselves as belonging to the Deaf Community or not, it is best to refer to them as HAVING a hearing impairment unless they tell you otherwise.

People With a Mental Health Diagnosis

When talking about a person who has a mental illness, it is never appropriate to refer to them as being "crazy," "psychotic," or "mad." Rather, use the name of the mental illness/es they have, e.g., "He has schizophrenia," or simply, "He has a mental health diagnosis." Do not say things like, "He's ADHD," rather, "He has ADHD."

If a person requires hospitalisation for a mental illness, we do not say, "She has gone to an asylum/the looney bin/the madhouse." Simply say, "She has gone to hospital." If you need to be specific as to why the person has gone to hospital, you can say, "She has gone to hospital to receive treatment for depression."

People With an Intellectual Disability

I'm sure you're getting the hang of it now! Instead of referring to a person as being retarded or slow, we say, "He has an intellectual disability," if that is true, or "She has learning difficulties," if the person does not have an intellectual disability but experiences trouble with learning.

Making Generalisations

When talking about people with disabilities, avoid making generalisations. For example, it is not appropriate to make a comment such as, "All kids with Down Syndrome are affectionate." Yes, some kids with Down Syndrome are affectionate, but others are not. Similarly, some children withOUT Down Syndrome are affectionate; some are not.

It is also inappropriate to say that all people with disabilities are inspirational. Again, some are, but some are not.

When talking about an adult with a disability, do not use words you would use to describe a child. For example, when discussing an adult with a disability, avoid saying something like, "Oooohhh, he's so cute!!!" Instead, say something like, "He is very attractive," if you would like to describe his physical appearance.

Consider: Is It Necessary?

When talking about a person with a disability, you need to consider whether it is necessary to mention their disability at all. Sometimes, it is appropriate to mention it, for example when discussing health issues. However, sometimes it is not necessary.

For example, you don't need to say, "I saw a person with Down Syndrome today." So what if you saw someone with Down Syndrome? Would you say, "I saw someone with brown hair today?" Similarly, you wouldn't say, "A customer placed a big order at work today. He was in a wheelchair." It is not necessary to mention that the person was in a wheelchair. Think about the times you would need to discuss a person's disability and times you wouldn't.

The Quiz

Now that you've learnt the appropriate language to use when discussing people with disabilities, see if you can reword the following sentences so that they use the correct language. Put your answers in the comment box, or send me a message.

1. There is a ramp available for wheelchair-bound people.

2. I'm training dogs to help the blind.

3. The autistic boy was playing with a Downs kid.

4. My uncle is retarded and crippled.

5. A man with a hearing impairment won the lottery last night.

6. People with autism have amazing mathematical abilities!

What will you do now?

Will you spread the word?

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.


Sanxuary on February 08, 2015:

I am not to worried about being politically correct when someone actually has a disability. I am more concerned with all the people who think that they are normal but clearly suffer from something. The horrible drivers, mean nasty people, people to lazy to do their jobs or to mentally impaired to do their job. What can we call them? Do you have a politically correct name for them? Is there a disability for people who love their pets to much? For people who do not know that charity is just a high paying job for someone else, a tax write off, free advertising? Its one thing to be mean its quite another to realize that people who care beyond reason, generally have an agenda that includes telling others what they can or can not do.

Sophie (author) from Sydney, Australia on August 16, 2010:

Pam, the point of these guidelines is to ensure that people use appropriate language when discussing people with disabilities. You're right, one set of "rules" will not please everyone. People like to be called different things. When talking about a specific person, it is good to use language they find appropriate. However, when discussing a group of people, or a person in general, these guidelines help ensure people use generally appropriate language, ensuring people with disabilities are treated with dignity and respect. Calling someone retarded, for example, is never ok. If we don't have guidelines educating people about what is ok, people will continue to use these offensive words.

Pam on August 15, 2010:

Sorry, but this is not going to work. Because, as one writer already pointed out, she doesn't consider herself disabled. Disability will offend some people, handicapped will offend others, retarded will offend one group, etc. You cannot please everyone, and it is for sure you ARE going to offend someone.

Sophie (author) from Sydney, Australia on July 07, 2010:

What a great initiative neecytou!

neecytou on July 07, 2010:

I agree with your campain of stopping the use of the R word. I, too, am also active in it. My partner and I are passing out green bracelets that say "Stop using the R word". Keep up the good work. Neecytou

Sophie (author) from Sydney, Australia on April 29, 2010:

Well done on getting your college degree!! I'm sorry you're made to feel less intelligent than others. Don't give up, and prove to others that people with disabilities can be just as successful as anyone else.

Linda J Smith from Google on April 25, 2010:

I am disabled because of a head injury I am not retarded, I just have severe memory problems and physical pain because my body and nervous system shut down while in a coma for 5 months. I got a college degree afterwards,2 year took 4. I still am made to feel less intelligent than others, It hurts!!!

Sophie (author) from Sydney, Australia on January 05, 2010:

Thanks for pointing that out Amalthea. It's really important to realise that people with disabilities are not all the same (they are often referred to as "the disabled" as though they are one group) but they have individual preferences and choices that we need to respect.

Thanks for your input, Nick. I find that when I talk to people about appropriate language to use, I am often accused of being too politically correct, over-sensitive, etc. Thank you for your comment.

Nicks on January 05, 2010:

Well, one interesting thing with this Hub is that it shows how important it is to be able to communicate accurately. This is vital and something that is probably in danger now as people read less and become less and less articulate. A thought provoking Blog which I thought was going to be horribly 'politically correct' - and yet it is really about linguistic precision. How can anyone have a problem with that?

Amalthea on January 05, 2010:

I appreciate the sentiment, but some of the assertions you make are not quite as general as you may think. For example, just like the Deaf community, many of us with autism spectrum diagnoses prefer "autistic". I don't like being refereed to as a "person with autism" any more than I'd like being called a "person with femaleness".

Person-first language is generally a good pattern to default to when you're not sure what language the person you're describing prefers, but the truly respectful thing to do is to call people what THEY want to be called, whether that's the "correct" thing or not.

Sophie (author) from Sydney, Australia on January 04, 2010:

Those are all really valid points! As a person with a mental health diagnosis, I never considered myself to have a disability, but the more I think about it, maybe I do! I guess it's good to have guidelines, but at the same time be aware of individual needs as well (where possible). And of course, there's the whole argument that the word "disability" shouldn't be used at all, that people should be called "differently-abled." Thanks for your feedback Georzetta.

Georzetta Ratcliffe from Pennsylvania on January 04, 2010:

I'll be the first to say that politically correct language can be a pain in the butt BUT it really is valuable. Our language helps define the way we think about things and people. Redefining our terminology forces us to redefine the people that we describe with the terminology.

Admittedly, it's not a perfect system. Even within the community of people with disabilities, there is some question about who is supposed to be called what.

Also, like many minority groups, we use language among ourselves that we would not appreciate others using.

I've been a wheelchair user for over 30 years. When I first started out, we were "handicapped" and then we were "disabled" and right now I'm "a person with a disability" or "mobility impaired."

Sometimes it is hard to keep up. It's the goal that is important here - to see all people as individuals and not labels or stereotypes. That takes some work.

Also it doesn't hurt to remember that a great many disabilities are acquired. You may one day find that you need people to be "politically correct" about you.

Great hub.

Sophie (author) from Sydney, Australia on January 04, 2010:

Hi Mr. Happy, and thanks for your honest comment. Sure, it's important to raise money and do research to help people with disabilities. But it is equally important for us to do what we can to erase the stigma that is so often attached to people with special needs. One way of doing this is to use appropriate language, and to treat people with disabilities with respect. It's also important to note that these guidelines for language were developed not only by advocates for people with disabilities, but by people with disabilities themselves. I'm not saying everyone with disabilities agrees with this language of course, but there are at least some people out there who want to be referred to in the ways I have outlined.

And Ruella, well said!

Mr. Happy from Toronto, Canada on January 04, 2010:

I must admit I am quite politically incorrect (in general). Let's honestly consider one thing though. The definition of the word "retarted" is as follows: "underdeveloped intellectually or emotionally". It is true that many people with "disabilities" may very well not be intellectually or emotionally "underdeveloped" but some I am sure do fall in that category. So if one is indeed "retarted" (as the definition of the word implies), why "blow-up" about it? Nobody is perfect, we all have faults or what not ... I think people in general make too great an issue out of this. Do not get me wrong I am not heartless; I do not go around pointing at people saying the "nasty word" but if that is the case ... it is what it is. Let us move on and perhaps discuss ways in which we can help through research and/or medicine; let's talk about ways to raise money ... let's move 'forward' ... That would be a better discussion I think. That's my politically incorrect opinion. On another order of ideas, I appreciate your kindness though.

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