What’s Ok to Say?

What’s Okay to Say? How to Speak About Disabilities

It can be difficult to know how to best refer to children and adults with disabilities. Labels change over time, and we don’t always know what’s okay to say.

The easiest thing to do is refer to people with disabilities by their name.

A few decades ago, person-first language was developed to respectfully refer to people with disabilities. The philosophy was that people with disabilities are defined by many things, but they are people first and foremost.

Today, an increasing number of people with disabilities want to emphasize disability as a core part of who they are. Disability comes first in identity-first language. An example is disabled person. This preference been particularly true of Deaf people and autistic people, but the identity-first movement is spreading among other groups.


Person first

Person with a disability

Person who has autism

Person with mental illness

Woman who is Deaf

Accessible parking

Identity first

Disabled person

Autistic person

Mentally-ill person

Deaf woman

Disabled parking

Never this!

Special needs


Crazy, psycho

Deaf Mute

Handicapped parking

So, what do you do?

  • Use the child’s or adult’s name.
  • Listen to how people describe their disability, and how they refer to themselves.

Avoid phrases like wheelchair bound and confined to wheelchair. Assistive devices like canes, crutches, motorized scooters, and wheelchairs provide people with disabilities more independence and freedom.

Some children with disabilities and family members use words like handicapped, crazy, or crippled. That is their right. In your role, use respectful language. If you’re not sure, use person-first language.

Avoid labeling inappropriately. Some people do not identify as having a disability. If that is true, describe what you notice about the child: James has a difficult time focusing on questions and is fidgeting a lot.

Why are we thinking about language this much? Language can determine how we define reality, and therefore influences our behavior. Using language that is respectful can also increase trust with children and families.

Self-advocates will tell you one way that they never want to be referred to in this brief video.