The Utterly Adaptable Etiquette Guide

There are more than 49 million Americans with disabilities. People with disabilities don't always agree on what is offensive or correct, but this guide provides some general direction.


It's difficult to always know what is offensive when referring to people with disabilities, but a good general rule is to "Put people first, not the disability." For example:

Use Avoid
Children who are deaf Deaf children
Girl who has cerebral palsy Cerebralpalsied girl
Man with mental illness Mentally ill
People or person with disabilities Disabled people
Disability Handicapped
Physical disability Crippled, lame
Seizure Fit
Mental disability Crazy, nuts

Don't use judgmental or stereotypical or obsolete descriptions: For example, avoid:

  • Retard
  • Victim
  • Cripple/Crippled/the Crippled
  • Afflicted by/Afflicted with
  • Invalid
  • Normal
  • Patient
  • Wheelchair bound/confined to a wheelchair
  • Unfortunate
  • Pitiful
  • Deformed
  • Crip
  • Deaf and Dumb
  • Blind as a bat

Also avoid using words like courageous, brave, inspirational. Adapting to a disability does not necessarily mean acquiring those traits. For example, it doesn't take "courage" to wear glasses or contact lenses to correct eyesight.


The following are commonly used terms when discussing disabilities.

General term for a limitation; physical, mental or sensory. A disability is not necessarily a handicap which limits normal life activity.
Person without disabilities. Don't use "normal," "able-bodied," or "healthy." People with disabilities can also be "normal," "able-bodied," or "healthy."
Loss of vision.
A generic term referring to all degrees of vision loss.
Congenital or Birth Disability
A disability which has existed since birth, but is not necessarily hereditary. Do not use "birth defect."
A profound hearing loss.
A generic term referring to any degree of hearing loss.
Developmental Disability
A significant mental or physical impairment which onsets before age 2 and usually requires lifelong services.
Learning Disability
A permanent condition which affects the way a person with average or above average intelligence learns and processes information.
Mental Retardation
Having significantly below average intellectual functioning, and at the same time needing help with at least two basic life skills.
Mental illness
A condition caused by a neurobiological disruption in the brain. It affects mood, thoughts and appetites.
Mental disability
All forms of mental illness, severe emotional disorder or mental retardation.
An involuntary muscular contraction, a brief impairment or loss of consciousness as the result of a neurological condition. A convulsion is a seizure involving contraction of the entire body.
Small Stature
Correct term for very small people.
Describes a muscle with sudden abnormal and involuntary spasms. Muscles are spastic, not people.
Speech Disorder
A condition where a person has limited ability to communicate through speech. Without speech discribes someone with no verbal speech capacity. Do not use "mute."
Spinal Cord Injury
Permanent damage to the spinal cord. Quadriplegia describes substantial or total loss of function in all four limbs. Paraplegia refers to substantial or total loss of function in the lower part of the body.

Many disablity groups do not like using euphemisms to describe disabilities. They consider terms such as "partially sighted," "handicapable," "mentally different," and "physically challenged" patronizing.


People with disabilities are active members of society and have identities beyond their disability. They should be included in all aspects of daily life and extended common courtesies when interacting with them.

It is appropriate to shake hands with a person who has a disability, even if they have limited use of their hands or wear an artifical limb.

When talking with a person who has a disability speak directly to that person rather than a companion or interpreter.

Ignore guide dogs or other service animals. Don't pet them...they are working.

If you offer to help, wait until the offer is accepted. Then listen or ask for instructions.

If the person is lip-reading, look directly at him or her. Speak slowly and clearly, but don't exaggerate your lip movements. Make sure you can be seen and keep hands and food away from your mouth.

When greeting a person with a vision disabilty, identify yourself and anyone else who might be with you. Ask, "Shall we shake hands?" Let the person know if you move or need to end the conversation.

Don't worry about using common expressions such as "See ya later," or "Gotta run."

When speaking with someone with mental retardation, use simple, but not childish language.


Give your undivided attention to someone who has difficulty speaking. Ask short questions which require short answers. Don't pretend to understand if you don't.

When speaking with someone who uses a wheelchair, sit down or kneel to place yourself at their eye level. Don't lean on the wheelchair.


Emphasize the person, not the disability

People are not conditions, so don't label them with the name of the condition or as part of a disability group. We don't say "the cancerous," nor should we say "the blind."

Be aware of people with hidden disabilities such as heart disease, AIDS or mental illness.

For more information about services for people with disablilities call: Access Utah Network (800) 333-UTAH (8824) (V/TDD) or (801) 533-INFO (4636) (V/TDD), (801) 363-1347 Disability Law Center.

Last Updated: April 2006

We welcome your questions or comments

Antidiscrimination & Labor Division
160 East 300 South, 3rd Floor
P.O. Box 146640
Salt Lake City, UT 84114-6640
Phone: 801-530-6801 or 1-800-222-1238