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Writing about disability and difference: words to use and avoid

This guide shows the language that NHS Digital's Ability Network members prefer you to use when writing about disability, physical or mental differences, diagnoses or conditions. 

How to communicate

It is important to be sensitive and to keep up to date with appropriate and acceptable language use. The meaning of words is constantly changing with new words added to our language every year.

Everyone is different and words that are normal for some may not be okay for others. If you are in direct contact with someone affected by disability, ask the person to tell you which words and phrases they are comfortable with.

Words to use and avoid

Accessibility

Words to use:

  • accessible toilets or accessible parking
  • parking for blue or orange badge holders

Words to avoid:

  • disability friendly or disabled access – highlights difficulty or inability
  • disabled toilets or disabled parking – the toilets and parking bays are not disabled

Caring

Words to use:

  • care worker
  • personal assistant
  • enabler
  • service user
  • client
  • friends, family and loved ones
  • enabling
  • championing

Condition

Words to use:

  • has a diagnosis of

Words to avoid:

  • illness - suggests the person could get better
  • suffers from
  • survivor
  • diagnosed with - this is a medical professional's opinion

Disabled or disability

Words to use:

  • has a protected characteristic (Equality Act 2010)
  • non-disabled - the opposite of disabled

Words to avoid:

  • handicapped - negative associations with begging
  • spastic - negative associations and implies lack of self control
  • invalid - implies a person is not valid
  • crippled - negative associations and implies helplessness
  • patient - implies the person may get better
  • normal people - implies some are abnormal
  • abled bodied - implies some are not able

Hearing and vision

Words to use:

  • person with sight or hearing loss
  • has sight or hearing loss

Words to avoid:

  • problems seeing or hearing - might not be a problem
  • sight, hearing or sensory impairment - can mean weak or diminished
  • hard of hearing - negative
  • a bit blind or deaf - belittling
  • the deaf or the blind - dehumanising 

Learning

Words to avoid:

  • intellectual disability – not used in the UK
  • cognitive impairment – used in medical contexts
  • slow learner or backward

Mental health

Words to use:

  • has experiences of mental health
  • has a mental health condition or diagnosis
  • has or has a diagnosis of (anxiety, depression, bipolar)

Words to avoid:

  • mental illness - implies sickness
  • diagnosed with - this is a medical professional's opinion

Mobility

Words to use:

  • walks with or uses a mobility aid
  • wheelchair user

Words to avoid:

  • mobility impaired - implies weakness
  • mobility problems - may not be a problem
  • wheelchair bound - implies burden or being confined

Neurodiversity

Words to use:

  • neurodiverse
  • neurotypical

Words to avoid:

  • special
  • hyper
  • anal
  • behavioural issues

Further information

  1. internal

    A to Z of house style

    The NHS Digital A to Z of house style covers style, spelling and grammar conventions for both online and offline content, arranged alphabetically.

  2. internal

    Writing tips

    An overview of how we write in clear, concise and simple language that everybody can understand.

Last edited: 24 June 2019 2:27 pm