Language Guide

Your choice of language has an impact on the way people with disabilities are perceived in society.  Language is a powerful tool that can change stereotypes and attitudes. You can use it to make a positive difference for people with disabilities in our community.

We would appreciate it if you could use the following language preferences when writing about people with disabilities. We use person-first language, emphasising the person, not the disability. People with disability are people first, who have families, work and participate in community activities.  We recommend using the following terms when talking about people with disability:

  • people with disability (children with disability, women with disability, etc)
  • lives with disability
  • has disability
Do use Instead of…
Person with [specify disability], for example:
Person with disability Disabled person
Person who uses a wheelchair, or “wheelchair user” “wheelchair bound” or “confined to a wheelchair”
John has cerebral palsy John suffers from Cerebral Palsy
Jane has epilepsy Jane is epileptic
People with psychosocial disability Mentally impaired people
Person with schizophrenia/bipolar Schizophrenic person / bipolar person
Person of short stature Midget or dwarf
Person with intellectual disability Mentally challenged or mentally impaired
Person with brain injury brain damaged or brain impaired
Person with Down syndrome Down’s people
 Person without a disability Normal person

* Please be aware that when it comes to autism, most autistic people prefer to be called “autistic” rather than “person with autism” because they see autism as an integral part of who they are, just as a person is Catholic or French.

How to talk about mental illness

The language people use when communicating about mental ill-health plays a big role in keeping alive stereotypes, myths, and stigma.  It is important that when discussing mental ill-health, people avoid using stigmatising terminology and language.

We would prefer you to use the following terms:
● A person is “living with” or “has” a psychosocial disability, or
● John is “living with” or “has” a mental ill-health, or
● Jane is “living with” or “has” a mental illness.

Psychosocial disability is an internationally recognised term under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and relates to the ‘social consequences of disability’ – the effects on someone’s ability to participate fully in life as a result of mental ill-health.  Psychosocial disability means that how you think, feel and interact with other people cause you to have barriers to (or stop you from) fully participating in life.

When talking about people with disability, do not use the following terms

  • normal and/or abnormal
  • afflicted with…  or suffering with…  (this type of language indicates people who have a disability are weak, a victim, or someone to be pitied)
  • handicapped, retarded, spastic, mental, imbecile
  • special needs (our needs are not special, we have the same needs as everyone else). Link to video on #NotSpecialNeeds
  • birth defect/deformity
  • brave, special, or inspirational (implying that a person with a disability is inspirational or special just for getting through the day is patronising and offensive)
  • deaf-mute, deaf and dumb, or dumb
  • physically challenged, differently-abled
  • deficient, mentally deficient
  • slow or slow learner (a person may have a learning disability, but they are not slow or a slow learner)
  • mongoloid
  • confined to a wheelchair, wheelchair-bound (wheelchairs are liberating and provide mobility to a person who cannot walk.  Please use “person who uses a wheelchair” or “wheelchair user”).
  • has the mental age of a three-year-old (or any age);  there is no such thing as a mental age
  • medical terms such as patient or invalid
  • psycho, mental, or crazy
  • psychiatric problems, psychiatric disability, pyshicatric impairment, mental problems, mental impairment (we prefer the term “psychosocial disability” because it focuses on the social and economic barriers associated with a mental illness rather than focusing on the person as a problem.)
  • Challenging behaviours (“Challenging behaviour” indicates that the person with disability is the problem.  We prefer the term “behaviours of concern” which is when a person’s behaviour may hurt themselves, other people or things.)

Behaviours of concern and mental illness

Sometimes behaviours of concern may be a person’s response to a mental illness. This is more likely when someone is unable to understand or communicate what they are experiencing. This may happen when an individual is in distress.

To show they are feeling upset, a person may show behaviours of concern because: 

●  Something traumatic happened to them.
●  Somebody died or has left them.
●  Somebody is dying or is leaving them.
●  Somebody has yelled or screamed at them in an angry way.
●  They are being picked on or being bullied.  

Some of the behaviours that people might show when they are depressed are: 

●  Hiding away from people.
●  Stopping doing things they enjoy.
●  Not sitting still.
●  Hitting out at others trying to help.

Behaviours that may occur with Bipolar Disorder are sometimes the behaviours that occur when someone is depressed and then at other times the following behaviours:

Walking away from important relationships.
Behaving in a frantic way. Feeling unstoppable.
Acting on impluse and not thinking of the consequences.

You can find further information at: