Using Unbiased Language to Discuss Disability

  • When discussing a disability, authors should be sensitive and considerate in their approach.
  • Some words should be used selectively or not at all, and the order in which a statement is written can have an impact.

Today, we describe how to use bias-free wording when writing about mental or physical disability. Perhaps most importantly, as in discussions of disease, an individual should not be equated with his or her disability or depicted as a victim. However, in discussions of disability, an additional practice should be avoided: overemphasizing the severity of an individual’s disability.

The following three tips may help to ensure that your word choice is accurate and appropriate when discussing disability:

Use the word “patient” selectively

Because this term suggests that an individual is ill and being medically treated for that illness, which is not necessarily the case for people with disabilities, patient should be used only when truly applicable.

Make careful comparisons

When describing a control group, terms such as nondisabled and without disabilities are preferable over the word normal, which may alienate individuals with disabilities by implying that they are not normal.

Avoid exaggeration of limitations

Certain phrasing may overstate the scope of a disability, such “the physically disabled” or “intellectually disabled people,” which imply that these individuals are completely physically or mentally disabled. Being more specific, using singular nouns instead of adjectives, and emphasizing the individual first may be preferable in these cases (e.g., “individuals with a physical disability,” “people with a learning disability,” or “people with dyslexia”). Avoiding language that suggests victimization is also best in this context.

You can find additional information about appropriate phrasing when discussing disabilities, including unnecessary euphemisms, insensitive metaphors, and potentially offensive language that should be avoided, in the American Medical Association’s Manual of Style (subscription required) and the American Psychological Association’s style guide. If you have any questions or comments on this topic, please send us an email.

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