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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

Some common words for the care sector can be patronising, controlling and imply weakness and passivity.

 

For example, 'carer caring for' or 'supporting'.

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

The use of the word condition is not always appropriate, as some people do not see themselves as 'having a condition' but view their difference as part of their identity.

 

For example, autism is not temporary and essentially forms part of someone’s being and identity. Therefore, it may not be appropriate to refer to it as a condition or illness, as some people may not consider themselves to be ill. 

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

For some, the word disabled or disability means they are ‘not able’ or less capable than others. Some people argue that they do not own a disability, but are instead 'disabled' by the world around them when it is not built with accessibility in mind.

 

This is called the social model of disability. The term 'differently abled' is also sensitive as some find it patronising and inaccurate.

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 

The term partially sighted or deaf can be inappropriate as it can imply incompleteness.

Learning

Words to avoid:

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

The term learning difficulties can be trivialising for some people. Learning disabilities is also a sensitive word, as it can imply someone is ‘not able’ or less capable than others.

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

Some people prefer words like autistic, dyspraxic or dyslexic whereas some people prefer to put the person first. It is best to avoid using person with or who has autism as this implies illness. Some people see it as part of their identity and not as an illness.

 

Neurodiverse conditions or disorders can imply something is wrong and that the ‘condition’ may get better.

 

Please also avoid on the spectrum as this can be misunderstood.


Further information

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.

Last edited: 4 May 2021 7:29 am