Ally Etiquette: The Disability Terms Everyone Should Know

Content warning: This guide contains ableist and offensive language.
Disability has continued to be a longstanding taboo in our culture. While one in six Australians — that’s around 4.4 million of us — has a disability, it’s something that is still discussed with an air of shame, disgust, othering, patronisation, and ignorance. 
Disability includes physical impairments, cognitive or intellectual impairments, sensory impairments, mental illness, neurodiversity, and chronic illness.
Language is a powerful tool in our allyship box. Language and our choice of words are, and have always been, political. It has the power to influence how we perceive our fellow Australians, and has a direct impact on the quality of life of those who find themselves the topic of conversation. 
As People With Disability Australia’s language guide says, “People with disability are often described in ways that are disempowering, discriminatory, degrading and offensive. Negative words such as ‘victim’ or ‘sufferer’ reinforce stereotypes that people with disability are unhappy about our lives, wish we were ‘normal’, and should be viewed as of pity.”
On the flip side, disabled people are often used as pawns in inspiration porn, the objectification of one group of people for the benefit of another to inspire and motivate — a term coined by the late Australian activist and comedian Stella Young. “We’re not real people, we’re there to inspire,” Stella says of the expectation that non-disabled people place on disabled people. “Disability doesn’t make you exceptional but questioning what you think you know about it does.”
We worked with Australian writer, speaker and activist Carly Findlay to create a guide of terms for allies to broaden their perspectives, and grow their understanding of disability. Keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list, and that language is constantly changing, so we'll be updating this story with new definitions and terms as they arise.
Preferred Language
Honouring and respecting how an individual disabled person wishes to be referred to is crucial as people of the same community have varying preferences that should be affirmed.
“The fight for disability rights is about us have more power to decide about what happens in our lives, and that includes the right to call ourselves by our preferred language,” says writer El Gibbs. “For some disabled people, that is 'person with disability', for others, it’s 'disabled person'. That is our right to use the language we prefer, and your responsibility, as a non-disabled person, to use that preferred language."
The disability community is not homogeneous. What’s one person's preference for terminology, might not be another’s. If in doubt, ask. Follow many different disabled people on social media, read their books and articles, support their work — get to know a variety of disabled people and their perspectives.
Identify-first (“Disabled person”)
As El mentioned, ‘disabled person’ is a type of identify-first language. This is when the identifying word comes before the person, just as someone might say “I am an Australian person”. The reclaiming and embracing of one’s identity is related to the social model of disability.
“The social model of disability says the barriers we face aren’t about us, but are about the world — the problem with being disabled isn’t about our impairments, but about the attitudes, access, expenses, discrimination and violence we experience in the world,” explains El. “The reclaiming of disabled, or autistic, or cripple, or mad, or a bunch of other ways we used to describe ourselves are about this — fighting back against shame, or any sense that we are the problem.”
Person-first (“Person with disability”)
Person-first language is preferred by the Australian Government and other non-government institutions. This form of language sees phrases like “person with disability” or “person living with disability” being used to centre the person rather than the disability.
Regardless of whether you’re using person-first or identify-first language, terms to avoid include: Differently-abled, handicapped, specially-abled, special needs, suffers from __, and victim of __.
Person With A Physical Or Mobility Disability.
Acceptable terms include: Person with a physical/mobility disability, uses a wheelchair, in a wheelchair, wheelchair user, uses crutches, uses a cane, uses a walker, uses a mobility aid or device.
Avoid: Confined to a wheelchair, wheelchair-bound, the wheelchair, spastic.
Person With An Intellectual Disability Or Cognitive Disability 
Acceptable terms include: Person with an intellectual/cognitive disability, person who has an intellectual/cognitive disability, intellectually disabled person.
Avoid: Intellectually challenged, mentally defective, mentally disabled, simple, derp, special, moron, retard, imbecile, Downie.
Person With A Sensory Disability
Sensory disability includes people who are blind or have low vision, and people who are Deaf deaf and hard of hearing. Acceptable terms include: b/Blind (if they identify that way), d/Deaf (if they identify that way), hard of hearing, person with a hearing/visual impairment person, person with hearing/vision impairment, and low vision.
Deaf with a capital D signifies culturally Deaf. Culturally Deaf people use Auslan (Australian Sign Language) as their primary language, and were often born Deaf.
Little d deaf describes the physical condition of being unable to hear, and people who identify as deaf generally don’t communicate with Auslan. 
Avoid: Deaf and dumb, mute.
Hidden Or Invisible Disability, And Dynamic Disability

Disability is not always visible. Terms like “hidden disability” or “invisible disability” can be used. 
The experience of disability can change, depending on levels of pain and fatigue, and also external barriers faced and accessibility that’s needed. Brianne Berness coined the term 'dynamic disability,' writing, “My disability is no longer static, it’s dynamic. My needs and abilities are different from day to day.”
Writer Joanna NoBanana says, “A dynamically disabled person is still disabled even on their “good” days”.
Person Without Disability
Acceptable terms include: Person without disability, non-disabled person.
Avoid: Able-bodied, abled, healthy, normal.
Euphemisms for disability are often used in place of the words "disability" and "disabled". Often it’s because people don’t know if they can use the word, feel uncomfortable using it due to the perceived taboo, or they believe disability is offensive or shameful. Euphemisms are often used within the education sector, or by parents of disabled children — often aimed at deducting stigma and softening the reality of disability. They include “special needs”, “differently-abled”, “all abilities”, and made-up words like “diffabled”.

By avoiding using the words “disability” and “disabled”, it erases disability as an identity and community, overlooks the barriers disabled people face (there isn’t a Special Needs Discrimination Act — it’s the Disability Discrimination Act). Sometimes disability support organisations and programs emphasise the ability in disability, capitalising the A - DisAbility. But disability doesn’t mean inability. 
As American disability activist Lawrence Carter-Long says, #SayTheWord.
Other Offensive Terms To Avoid
The following terms are derogatory for people with disabilities, no matter what context they are in. We recommend avoiding them: Crazy, insane, lunatic, mad, mental case, psycho, daft, loony, maniac, nuts, psychopathic, whacko, dumb, imbecile, slow-witted, dim-witted, idiotic, moron, simple-minded, stupid, lame, cripple, spastic.
Some of these terms have been reclaimed by people with disabilities, but that doesn’t mean non-disabled people should use them. Being cautious of what we say is an act of respect, and an acknowledgement of the past hurt and present pain caused onto disabled people.
Resources: People With Disability Australia’s language guide, El Gibbs’ What’s In A Name? blog post, Inspiration porn and the objectification of disability: Stella Young at TEDxSydney 2014, Autistic Choya’s Ableism/Language blog post, Disabled Spectator’s #SayTheWord article, Joanna No Banana’s Imposter Syndrome: Dynamic Disability Edition blog post, Brianne Benness’ My Disability Is Dynamic article.
This is a living, breathing space that will be continuously updated as we learn more about the subject. Please reach out to us if you have any suggestions or comments.

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