Tag Archives: disability etiquette

Disability Etiquette in News Headlines

Disability Etiquette Words Do Say Don't Say

I was skimming through the news today and something caught my eye. There was an article about a young man who is a wheelchair user that has revolutionized the field of action sports by performing extremes stunts, flips, etc. in his wheelchair. This man is a great role model and inspiration for young wheelchair users everywhere. In the article he is described “wheelchair stricken” multiple times.

Someone who has made a name for himself in the extreme sports environment and performed many firsts from his wheelchair, including a backflip, double backflip and front flip doesn’t sound “stricken” to me.  The media is in a unique position to shape the public image of people with disabilities. The words they choose to use can create insensitive, negative images or a straightforward positive view of people with disabilities.

One aspect that much of the media tends to forget is person-first language. It’s not only appropriate to say “person with a disability” instead of “the disabled” or “handicapped,” it’s also just basic respect. The disability does not define the person, no more than skin color or religion.

Below are actual headlines that were pulled from news outlets worldwide:

Don’t: Down syndrome man, 34, left on Bergen County bus for hours in Lodi garage

Do: Student With Down Syndrome Named to Rochester Homecoming Court

Don’t: Wheelchair-bound Seymour man challenges selectmen to ‘wheel’ in my shoes

Do: No Go Britain: wheelchair user wins landmark victory

Don’t: Deaf writer Sophie Woolley’s cochlear implant regained her hearing

Do: Woman, deaf since 2, hears for first time

While I believe that many journalists and reporters use incorrect language when describing a person with a disability because of the need to be concise in headlines and descriptions, I also believe that many simply don’t know they are being offensive. Below is a guide that will assist anyone in the correct, person-first language for describing a person with a disability. The guide will continue to evolve as the disability community does.



You are in a unique position to shape the public image of people with disabilities.
By putting the person first and using these suggested words, you can convey a positive, objective view of an individual instead of a negative, insensitive image.
Do say Don’t say
Disability Differently abled, challenged
People with disabilities The disabled, handicapped
Person with spinal cord injury Cripple
Person with Down syndrome Mongoloid
Person of short stature Midget, dwarf
Uses a wheelchair, wheelchair user Confined to a wheelchair, wheelchair-bound
Has a learning disability Slow learner
Has chemical or environmental sensitivities Chemophobic
Has a brain injury Brain damaged
Blind, low vision Visually handicapped, blind as a bat
Deaf, hard of hearing Deaf-mute, deaf and dumb
Intellectual disability Retarded, mental retardation
Amputee, has limb loss Gimp, lame
Congenital disability Birth defect
Burn survivor Burn victim
Post-polio syndrome Suffers from polio
Service animal or dog Seeing eye dog
Psychiatric disability, mental illness Crazy, psycho, schizo
How should I describe you or your disability? What happened to you?
Accessible parking or restroom Handicapped parking, disabled restroom
Person with Down syndrome Mongoloid


An Open Letter to Ann Coulter

After the debates last week, Ann Coulter tweeted that Mr. Obama was a “retard” for his performance. When he heard about it, decorated Special Olympian John Franklin Stephens took exception, and crafted a response that at once takes the highest of all high roads while still managing to show why the R-word is offensive.

Mr. Stephens’ words help to break through the stereotype and puts a real face to a word too many people just throw around. In this day of the Internet, sometimes the printed word can be mightier than the sword.

We applaud Mr. Stephens approach, and especially love the way he signed it, “A friend you haven’t met yet.”

Dear Ann Coulter,

Come on Ms. Coulter, you aren’t dumb and you aren’t shallow.  So why are you continually using a word like the R-word as an insult?

I’m a 30 year old man with Down syndrome who has struggled with the public’s perception that an intellectual disability means that I am dumb and shallow.  I am not either of those things, but I do process information more slowly than the rest of you.  In fact it has taken me all day to figure out how to respond to your use of the R-word last night.

I thought first of asking whether you meant to describe the President as someone who was bullied as a child by people like you, but rose above it to find a way to succeed in life as many of my fellow Special Olympians have.

Then I wondered if you meant to describe him as someone who has to struggle to be thoughtful about everything he says, as everyone else races from one snarkey sound bite to the next.

Finally, I wondered if you meant to degrade him as someone who is likely to receive bad health care, live in low grade housing with very little income and still manages to see life as a wonderful gift.

Because, Ms. Coulter, that is who we are – and much, much more.

After I saw your tweet, I realized you just wanted to belittle the President by linking him to people like me.  You assumed that people would understand and accept that being linked to someone like me is an insult and you assumed you could get away with it and still appear on TV.

I have to wonder if you considered other hateful words but recoiled from the backlash.

Well, Ms. Coulter, you, and society, need to learn that being compared to people like me should be considered a badge of honor.

No one overcomes more than we do and still loves life so much.

Come join us someday at Special Olympics.  See if you can walk away with your heart unchanged.

A friend you haven’t made yet,
John Franklin Stephens
Global Messenger
Special Olympics Virginia

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