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

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

Learn what the proper language is when referring to a person with a disability.

Learn what the proper language is when referring to a person with a disability.

Offensive Language

All too often, I hear 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, 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 hearing, or vision, impairments.

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," but 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 the hospital." If you need to be specific as to why the person has gone to the hospital, you can say, "She has gone to the 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 learned 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!

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.