Disability Services for Students

302 Memorial Union Univeristy of Rhode Island Kingston, RI 02881


Think Big, We Do.
Rhode Island Seal

A Guide to Language and Interactions that are Inclusive and Respectful of Persons with Disabilities

Distinguish between Disability and Handicaps…

Disability applies to a person’s functional limitation or condition Handicap is a barrier in the environment.
A person uses a hearing aid because of a disability A handicap is when there is no relay system available in telephone network
A person uses a wheelchair because of a disability A handicap is when the person faces stairs with no adjoining elevator and cannot go up or down a floor
A person used extended time on an exam because of a reading/decoding disability A handicap is when time to complete a task is so constricted that the person cannot demonstrate knowledge of the material

Relate to the person first, not the disability…

  • Most people think of themselves as normal: therefore it is more appropriate use “non-disabled” and “disabled” when discussing groups of people.
  • Adjectives are not nouns: “epileptic” describes an event, but a person has epilepsy or “seizure disorder”. “People who are disabled” is preferable to “the disabled”.
  • Avoid pity: A person who used a wheelchair is not a “wheelchair victim” (as one woman stated “I am not a wheelchair victim; wheelchair victims are the people I bump into with my footrest at the supermarket”.
  • Use person-first language
    • Say “person with a disability” or “student who is deaf” when the disability is relevant to the conversation
    • Generally it is not necessary to mention the disability when speaking about a person; i.e. “the artist gave an exhibition” rather than “the artist with a disability gave…”
    • Avoid categories such as “the blind” but rather say “students who are blind”.
    • Describe assistive devices as useful tools for the individual, not as extensions … “uses a wheelchair” is always preferable to “wheelchair bound” or “confined to crutches”.
    • Avoid emotional or degrading terms – NEVER SAY “afflicted with” etc

It’s OK to be yourself…

  • Common expressions such as “See you later” or “I’ve got to run” or “I heard that …” are not offensive to people with disabilities. Don’t feel uncomfortable when they enter your conversation.
  • It’s OK to offer to help someone with a disability, but wait until the offer is accepted and instructions are given before proceeding

With Deaf or Hard of Hearing People…

  • To get the person’s attention, touch her lightly, wave your hand or use some other visual sign. If an interpreter is being used, speak to the person NOT the interpreter. Never say “Ask her to tell me about her experience.” Rather, say “Tell me about your experience.”
  • If the person is lip-reading, look directly at him, speak slowly and clearly, but do not exaggerate lip movements, and do not speak loudly. Speak expressively, because the person will use facial expression, gestures and body language to help to understand.
  • Keep food and hands (and moustaches, too) away from your mouth when speaking. Feel free to use written notes. Even the best lipreader will pick up less than half the message with vision alone.

Treat people with disabilities as you would treat everyone else…

  • Adults should be treated as adults.
  • Avoid the hero concept (“he’s so amazing”);
  • Avoid the pitiful concept (“there but for the grace of God go I”).
  • Just as you would not touch or lean on a person, it is not polite to touch or lean on a person’s wheelchair or crutches, unless you have their permission.
  • NEVER pat a person on the head.

Terms to avoid and Terms to use:


Use this phrase instead:

Afflicted Has
Retarded Developmentally disabled
Birth defect Born with
Cripple Person with a physical disability
Mute or “dumb” Has speech disability, or pre-lingually deaf
Epileptic Has epilepsy or seizure disorder
Handicapped Has a disability
Handicapped parking Accessible parking; disability parking
Handicapped accessible Fully accessible, accessible to persons with disabilities
Deformed Has a physical disability
Midget or dwarf Short-statured person
Mongoloid Person with Down Syndrome
Normal Non-disabled; neurotypical
Wheelchair-bound, confined to a wheelchair Uses a wheelchair
Cerebral-palsied Has cerebral palsy
Deaf and dumb Person who is Deaf, a person who is Hard-of-Hearing, or has a hearing disability
Lame Uses crutches, uses a cane
Hearing impaired Is Deaf or hard-of-hearing; has a hearing disability
Hunchback Has a spinal curvature
Insane, crazy, not-wrapped-tight Has a mental health disability
Infirm Has an illness
Invalid Has a chronic illness; has a mobility disability
Paralytic Has a physical disability
Arthritic Has arthritis



Copyright © 2017 University of Rhode Island.

The University of Rhode Island
Think Big, We Do.
A-ZDirectoryContact UsJump to top