Language Guide

This guide was written by people with disability to assist media outlets and the general public when talking about and reporting on disability. 

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 disability.

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 a disability

However, many people with disability also embrace “identity-first” language, which positions disability as an identity.  This language is known as “identity-first” because the identifying word comes first in the sentence and highlights how the person embraces their identity. For example, “I am a disabled person”.  

Some specific disability communities, such as Autistic and Deaf communities, will primarily use identity-first language, and may prefer not to refer to themselves as disabled at all.  For example, they might say “I am Autistic“, or “I am Deaf“.  

It’s important to respect the individual person with disability’s choice of language that they use about themselves.

Do use Instead of…
Person with [specify disability], for example:
Person who uses a wheelchair, or “wheelchair user” “wheelchair-bound” or “confined to a wheelchair”
John has cerebral palsy John suffers from Cerebral Palsy
People with psychosocial disability Mentally impaired 
Person with schizophrenia/bipolar Psycho or Schizo or crazy
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


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” 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 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.)

You can find further information at:


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