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Here are some tips on how to write and speak about people with developmental disabilities.
Updated 12.8.22

Be considerate before you speak

  • When talking with a person with a disability, speak directly to that person, rather than through a companion, aide or sign language interpreter.
  • Making small talk with a person who has any type of disability is great, just talk with the person as you would with anyone else.
  • If you are unsure, kindly ask the person with whom you are engaging what they prefer; it is always best to be respectful and person-centered.

Be sensitive about physical contact

  • Some people with disabilities depend on their arms for support.
  • Grabbing their arms, even if your intention was to assist, could knock them off balance.
  • Avoid patting a person on the head or touching their wheelchair, scooter or cane. Some people with disabilities consider their equipment part of their personal space, which is an extension of their bodies.
  • RESPECT any type of person’s personal space.
  • DO NOT lean on, hang from or hang your coat or bag on a person’s wheelchair. These things are similar to hanging or leaning on someone’s body and many people who use a wheelchair find this to be frustrating and disrespectful.

Ask before you help

  • Just because a person has a disability, DO NOT assume that they need help.
  • Adults with disabilities want to be treated as independent people and most can be as independent as any other person.
  • Offer assistance, but don’t be offended when the person says, “No.”
  • If the person wants assistance, ask how and let them tell you exactly what they need.

Language practices

  • Refer to persons or people with intellectual disabilities, rather than “intellectually disabled.”
  • NOT the visually impaired, but people who are visually impaired.
  • NOT the disabled, but people with disabilities or people who are disabled.
  • NOT “suffering from” Muscular dystrophy or Cerebral palsy, but “person with” Muscular dystrophy or Cerebral palsy.

Deaf community

  • In the Deaf/Deafblind community, people take pride in identifying themselves as Deaf/Deafblind. It is a cultural identification, a sense of pride and a unique way of experiencing the world.

Positive language empowers

  • Use words that stress equality and active participation.
  • Avoid language that implies victimization or is patronizing.
  • People have intellectual disabilities, rather than are “suffering from” “afflicted with” or a “victim of” intellectual disabilities.
  • A person is physically challenged, disabled or handicapped, rather than “crippled.”
  • A person “uses a wheelchair” or is a “wheelchair user,” rather than is “confined” or “restricted to” to a wheelchair.
  • “Down syndrome” has replaced “Down’s Syndrome” and “mongoloid.”

Affirmative Phrases

Person with an intellectual, cognitive or
developmental disability

Person who is blind, visually impaired

Person who is hard of hearing

Person who uses a wheelchair

Person with a physical disability

Person with Cerebral palsy

Person who has epilepsy, person with a
seizure disorder

Unable to speak, uses a speech device
(i.e. Dynavox or any communication aids
such as an iPad, etc.)

Negative Phrases

retarded, mentally defective

the blind

suffers a hearing loss

confined, restricted to a wheelchair

crippled, lame, deformed

CP victim


dumb, mute

Tips for communicating with Deaf or hard of hearing people

  • There is a range of communication preferences and styles among people with hearing loss. People with hearing impairments will inform you what works best for them.
  • Face them the whole time you are speaking. Eye contact is very important.
  • An expressive and mobile facial expression gives more clues than a passive one.
  • Speak directly to the person, NOT their interpreter.
  • Speak clearly. Most people who are hard of hearing count on watching people’s lips as they speak to help them understand.
  • If you do not have a text telephone or teletypewriter (TTY), which is also known as a TDD, dial 711 to reach the national telecommunications relay service.
  • If you receive a relay call, the operator will identify it as such. Please DO NOT hang up; for example this is the way that people who are deaf are able to place an order for pizza or call a store to find out their hours.

Tips for communicating with people who have visual impairments

  • Speak in a normal tone of voice.
  • Verbally give the person information that is visually obvious to people who can see.
  • NEVER distract or touch a service dog without first asking the owner.
  • When conversing in a group, remember to identify yourself and the person that you are speaking to.

Tips for communicating with people of any age who have mobility impairments

  • If possible, put yourself at the eye level of the person using a wheelchair or walker. While talking with the person, stand back a few feet from that person or get a chair to sit on.
  • If you telephone the person, let it ring as long as necessary to allow extra time for the person to reach the telephone.