Disability: Terminology and Key Concepts

The following is a brief list of concepts and terms to be aware of in relation to writing or reporting on disability or related to ableism in everyday language. Note, this section is a starting guide for the community, not an exhaustive list. See disability resources for more.

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  • The word “disabled” is best considered an adjective, not a noun, so as not to define people by their disability or to lump all people with disabilities into one monolithic group.
  • Never refer to “the disabled.” Note, however, some people with disabilities prefer the terminology “disabled person,” to highlight the way the built environment and social, cultural, political, and economic structures function to limit their personhood.


  • The preferencing of ability over disability, whether in the sense of the physical world and the built environment, embedded in political and social structures or with respect to language and culture. Because ableism is a taken-for-granted orientation, it is pervasive in linguistic choices that may otherwise seem innocent
  • Some examples of ableist language that may seem innocent include “kickstart,” “foresight,” “blind spot,” “blind eye,” “upstanding,” “tone deaf,” “lame” and thousands of other commonly used words, metaphors and phrases. What is common to these linguistic choices is that disability is constructed negatively. Instead of saying that traffic was “crippled” on the 401, find a more appropriate phrase.


  • Like ableism, normativity is a pervasive orientation that presumes some opposite that is abnormal.
  • Do not refer to “normal people” or normal ways of being, even in stories that are not about disability. There are always other words that can be used, such as “regular,” or in some cases (i.e., “normal person”) to simply omit the word.

invisible disability

  • Many disabilities are invisible, in the sense that they are not immediately apparent to casual observers. This may include a range of cognitive disabilities, mental illnesses, chronic pain conditions like fibromyalgia, and many other disabilities.
  • People with invisible disabilities have become accustomed to having the veracity of these disabilities questioned.
  • A “hierarchy” of disabilities has also been created, in which invisible disabilities are often placed at the bottom.
  • It is important not to question the reality of a person’s disability experience, and to avoid re-invoking any hierarchy of illness, impairment, or disability.

mental health

  • Too often, when we write about “wellness,” “mental health,” “resilience,” and other states of mind, we are actually subtly demanding these things. We may hope that everyone in our community can experience mental health, but this construction can often feel very narrow. This leads to a culture in which people who experience depression, mental illness, or have a mental or psychological diagnosis or disability will not seek help, will see their conditions as abnormal when they are not, or will feel shamed or ostracized.

crippled, handicapped, imbecile, insane, nuts, psycho, etc.

  • Avoid the casual use of descriptors that draw from terminology identifying people with disabilities. Note, however, that some terminology has been reclaimed by people with disabilities, for example in the “crip pride” movement and in “crip theory.”
  • Other terminology that we may feel has become detached from disability diagnoses – words like “idiot” or “crazy” for example – have very harmful histories and must be avoided. Just because major news outlets use terms like these (i.e., “Covidiot”) does not make this okay.


  • Some common stories invoke disability as something that has to be overcome or compensated for, constructing the disabled person as capable of working harder than others, or having special abilities that counteract their disabilities. These stories invoke disability as a deficit. But they also place unfair demands on disabled people. Other stories construct disabled people as more child-like, innocent, or virtuous than other people, and suggest that our response to a disability should be charity, pity, or that we should solve disability as a problem. The issue with these angles is that disabled people are denied their own agency and personhood.

cure and eradication

  • On university campuses, disability is a huge topic and focus for research. But many times, the goal of this research can be to “cure” disability or eradicate it. This can have negative consequences for people with disabilities who are alive.


  • Unfortunately, disability is often simply thrown in when we talk about diversity and equity, and it is noticeable when disability is the last identity group mentioned, or when disability is mentioned but then never properly addressed. Constructing disability as simply a matter of compliance to disability law is similarly reductive.

plain language

  • It is important not just that we choose the right words, metaphors and themes in our writing, but that we try to ensure that the writing itself is accessible to a wide readership.
  • When possible, offer definitions of difficult terms, and use plain language to describe and explain difficult concepts.

print and digital accessibility

  • When we publish stories, we need to meet or exceed accessibility standards. This means including rich, informative text descriptions for visual elements, ensuring our text is screen-readable, and so on.