Examples Of Ableist Language You May Not Realize You’re Using

ableist language

Ableist language doesn’t only consist of slurs. It comes in many forms, including some so familiar that you may have never stopped to think about their origins or implications.

The term ableist language has two definitions in this dictionary, accounting for the different things it can refer to:

  1. words and phrases that devalue disabled people by using disability language or historical descriptions of disabilities as an insult.
  2. language that treats disability as something to be pitied or disabled people as inspirational when overcoming a disability.

In this article, we’ll:

  • Provide examples of different kinds of ableist language, including both overt terms and more subtle phrasings.
  • Note preferred terms and easy ways to avoid ableist language.

It’s important to note that, in the context of disability, not all people share the same language preferences. There may be terms that the majority of people considers offensive that some individuals consider part of their identity. But being aware of these differing preferences can help to ensure that you make language choices based on understanding and respect.

First, a note about disabled and disability

First and foremost, remember that in many cases it’s not relevant or necessary to discuss or point out a person’s disability at all. When discussion of a disability or other condition is pertinent, it is often preferable to name the person’s specific disability or condition, such as paraplegia or diabetes.

However, when addressing an issue that affects a larger community of people—for example, when discussing accessibility in the workplace—disabled and disability are often the preferred terms. Still, some people object to the terms disabled and disability in and of themselves, so it is important to learn individual language preferences. An alternative is to frame people’s differences as just that, such as with terms like physical differences and cognitive differences.

disabled person or person with a disability 

There’s a term for choosing to say person with a disability instead of disabled person, and vice versa. Person with a disability is an example of what’s called person-first language (because it literally places the person before the description of them), while terms like disabled person are sometimes called identity-first language.

Person-first language is widely encouraged in many contexts as a way to avoid defining a person solely by their disability, condition, or physical difference. However, not everyone prefers it. Some people instead prefer identity-first language as a way of emphasizing what they consider an important part of their identity. As always, it is best to respect each person’s individual preference.

In this article and in general, we typically use person-first language when discussing entire communities, unless there is a strong preference for identity-first language among the majority of members of that community.

For more on this topic, check out our guide to person-first and identify-first language.

Content Note: To discuss this topic properly, it is necessary to explicitly mention many terms and phrasings that are widely considered offensive. The sections below highlight many (though certainly not all) terms and topics that are pertinent to the discussion of ableist language.

the disabled

Despite the preference for the adjective disabled in many contexts, this does not extend to its use as a collective noun. Using the phrase the disabled to collectively refer to people with disabilities is usually considered offensive. Like with many other terms—such as the homeless—referring to a group of people by using the word the and a collective modifier can dehumanize them and result in the perception of the group as a monolith, rather than one consisting of a diversity of individuals.

handicap and handicapped

The once commonly used terms handicap and handicapped have been widely replaced with disability and disabled, respectively. The word handicap has its origins in horse racing, referring to a disadvantage placed upon certain competitors. Using these terms in the context of disability is now often considered demeaning due to their emphasis on disadvantage.


People with disabilities often object to terms like able-bodied and similar phrases to refer to people who don’t have disabilities. Terms like these can imply that people with disabilities don’t have “able bodies” or otherwise have comparatively less fulfilling lives. Some people prefer terms such as non-disabled or people without disabilities instead, but preferences vary.

suffers from

Saying that a person suffers from a certain disability is widely considered an example of ableist language. The word suffers, when used this way, falsely equates having a disability to a life of suffering.

Examples of phrasings similar to suffers from that are also best to avoid include stricken with and afflicted with. Use of such wording is easily avoidable. When it’s relevant, you can simply say that a person has a certain disability or condition. For example, a person has diabetes or has cerebral palsy.

confined to a wheelchair

In this context, words like confined wrongfully imply that a person who uses a wheelchair lacks agency—especially compared to those who don’t—and that needing to use a wheelchair is an inherently negative thing. The easy alternative is right there in the previous sentence: saying that a person uses a wheelchair (or expressing this with similarly neutral wording) is perfectly acceptable.


The word victim is another example of terminology that can diminish a person’s agency and imply that they require pity. In the context of disability, it wrongfully implies that a disability or condition is inherently negative and that it involves a life of suffering—as if it were some kind of curse. There can be a tendency to use the word in tandem with a term for a medical event or emergency that resulted in some negative effects for a person—such as in stroke victim or burn victim—but doing so can be dehumanizing, reducing a person to something that happened to them.

impaired and impairment

Many medical and government organizations have used variations of the word impaired in the context of disability, such as in phrases like hearing-impaired and visual impairment. While terms like these are common, many object to the word impaired because it can emphasize limitations or equate disability to injuries or damaged bodies. For this reason, simple wording like she is blind, which is a diagnostic term for those who have complete lack of sight, may be preferred.

high-functioning and low-functioning

These non-medical terms have a history of use in certain contexts, such as educational settings, to describe people with mental disabilities, but they are often considered offensive and inappropriate for multiple reasons. Because they are not formal medical terms, they are often used vaguely and imprecisely. Critics of the terms also point out that they can invite unnecessary comparisons of people with different disabilities, imply that there are different “levels” of disability, or suggest a difference in quality of life.

Figurative use of words like deaf and blind

The English language is full of figurative and metaphorical expressions, including many that are based on comparisons to deafness and blindness: fall on deaf ears, turn a blind eye, and the blind leading the blind are just a few. They may be so familiar as to seem innocuous, but when you stop to think about their meanings and connotations, it becomes obvious that they’re all negative. And this negativity is based on drawing a comparison between disability and non-disability and then asserting disability as being inherently disadvantageous.

Despite how common and ingrained these phrases are in our language, it’s easy to avoid them. There is no shortage of expressions that mean the same thing. Or you could avoid a cliché altogether and just say it plainly: for example, instead of saying turn a blind eye, you could simply say deliberately overlook or ignore.

Language that focuses on limitations

Some examples of ableist language are of the kind that focus on limitations, such as saying that someone can’t see/hear/talk. When a disability is relevant, it is best to discuss it neutrally, and not in a way that emphasizes what a person is not able to do. In some cases, an even better choice may be a term that focuses on strengths and advantages, such as dyslexic thinking.


In the context of disability, the use of euphemisms—terms that avoid or soften something perceived as negative—is often considered a condescending attempt by people without disabilities to use “sensitive” wording. This avoidance of straightforwardness strongly implies that disability is a topic to be ashamed of or avoided and that people with disabilities are in need of pity or sympathy. Two well-known examples—now often avoided—are special needs and physically challenged, but there are many, many others. The easy alternative is to address disability in a direct way. For example, the phrase a child with Down syndrome gives a factual description of the condition without resorting to euphemisms.

Language that patronizes

Some people have a tendency to refer to people with disabilities as “heroes” or as “an inspiration.” However well-intentioned, this is often interpreted as condescending and belittling due to being based on the ableist assumption that people with disabilities rarely achieve success or that they should be held to lower standards. While it is important to recognize the challenges that people with disabilities can face, patronizing “hero” narratives often serve to reinforce systemic barriers by placing the focus on exceptionalism rather than on the barriers themselves.

Terms directly rooted in ableism

As we’ve noted in the sections above, some ableist language consists of wording with subtle implications or connotations. But ableist language can also be overt, including when it consists of individual terms directly rooted in ableism. For some of these terms, awareness of this association has faded as they have become more general and entered mainstream use or as they have taken on completely unrelated uses in specific communities. However, they can still carry ableist connotations. Here are some examples.

  • spastic, spaz: These terms are rooted in a reference to muscular spasms that result from conditions such as cerebral palsy.
  • retard, retarded: There is widespread awareness of the offensiveness of these contemptuous terms used in reference to a person’s cognitive ability.
  • cripple, crippled: The negative and demeaning connotations of these terms are well known. Terms like disabled and disability are usually suitable for use in the contexts in which they were formerly used.
  • gimp: This term is considered demeaning and dehumanizing when used by others to refer to a person who limps or cannot walk. However, within the disability community, it is sometimes used as a term of self-reference.
  • lame: Many people do not recognize or consider the connection between the medical and slang senses of this word, but using a term associated with injury or disability as a general insult is often considered insensitive.
  • dumb: Once used as a way of describing a person who does not speak, such as in the term deaf-and-dumb (which is now also considered offensive). The negative associations and implications are obvious.
  • moron, idiot, imbecile: These terms were formerly used in psychology as official labels for levels of cognitive ability. Their clinical use has long been abandoned, but casual use persists despite the offensive connotations.
  • derp, der, doy, duh: These words are rooted in a mocking imitation of the speech patterns of people with certain disabilities.

Like disability, the language of mental health is nuanced. Learn how to talk about mental health topics with sensitivity.

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