Dignity in the Classroom

Inclusive Language

People with a disability can and should be described in words and expressions that portray them in an appropriate, positive and sensitive manner. The following guidelines are suggested/preferred by over 200 organization that represent/are associated with Canadians with disabilities.

Always remember to describe the person, not the disability. Only refer to a person's' disability when it is relevant and avoid words designed to evoke pity or guilt.

If in doubt, ask! It is okay to make mistakes when you acknowledge the mistake was made and want to correct it for the future.

Instead of... Use...
(the) disabled People or person(s) with a disability
Crippled by, afflicted with, or suffers from Person who has or person with...
Physically challenged Person with a disability
Victim, sufferer Person with a disability
Cripple Person with a disability
Lame Limited mobility
Mobility impaired Limited mobility
Confined, bound, restricted or dependent on a wheelchair Wheelchair user
Normal Able-bodied
Deaf and dumb, deaf mute Person who is hard of hearing or deaf
Hearing impaired Person who is hard of hearing or deaf
Retarded, mentally retarded, person with mental handicap Person with an intellectual disability or
person with a developmental disability
Spastic (as a noun) Person with Cerebral Palsy
Deformed, congenital defect Person born with...
Visually impaired Blind or partially sighted

Compiled by Active Living Alliance for Canadians with a Disability. Supported by Fitness Canada, Government of Canada Fitness and Amateur Sport, and Government du Canada Condition physique et Sport amateur.

Guidelines for Interaction

  • Treat people who have disabilities with the same dignity and respect you would give people without disabilities.

  • Offer help but wait until it is accepted before giving it. Offering assistance to someone is only polite behaviour. Giving help before it is accepted is rude and can sometimes be unsafe.

  • Offer to shake hands when introduced to people with limited hand use, an artificial limb, etc., for they can usually shake hands. Offering the left hand is an acceptable greeting.

  • Don't lean against or hang on someone's wheelchair. It is an extension of his/her personal space. Never patronize someone in a wheelchair by patting him/her on the head or shoulder.

  • Listen attentively when talking with someone who has difficulty speaking and wait for him/her to finish. If necessary, ask short questions that require short answers, a nod, or shake of the head.

  • Talk directly to the person with the disability, not to someone accompanying him or her. To ignore a person's existence in a group is very insensitive and it is always rude for two people to discuss a third person who is also present. For example, if a deaf person is with an interpreter, speak directly to the deaf person, the interpreter will interpret what you are saying to him/her.

  • Treat a person with a disability as a healthy person. If an individual has a functional limitation does not mean that the individual is sick. Many disabilities have no accompanying health problems.

  • Most people with disabilities will ask for assistance if they need it. They will often try to do as much as they can on their own and assistance is not always required. Offer assistance if you wish, but do not insist on helping.

  • When talking to a person in a wheelchair, if conversation continues for more than a few minutes, pull up a chair. Communication may be enhanced and neck strain alleviated.

  • Don't be embarrassed if you happen to use common expressions such as 'see you later' or 'did you hear about that?' that may relate to a person's disability.

  • When giving directions to a person in a wheelchair, be sure to review the route the person will travel in the context of elevators, ground level access, etc.

  • If you have difficulty understanding someone, don't pretend that you do understand. Repeat as much as you understand and the person's reactions will give you clues.

These are excerpts from the following two sources: Ten Commandments for Communicating with People with Disabilities, The New York Times, June 7, 1993, and a pamphlet from the Regional Rehabilitation Research Institute on Attitudinal, Legal and Leisure Barriers, Washington, D.C. Additional observations have been added.