Translating and writing about disabilities

If you don’t have a disability yourself or are not part of a disability community, it can be hard to find the right terminology to write or translate texts about disability.

Using outdated language can perpetuate old stereotypes of people with disabilities. That’s why it’s important for us to be aware of how language can be used to portray people with disabilities in a sensitive and appropriate way.

Here are some aspects to consider when writing and translating texts for or about people with disabilities.

People-first language

People with disabilities are not a homogenous group. They are individuals – people with their own unique abilities, wishes and needs. This is why many guides on writing or talking about disability advocate for ‘people-first’ language, which emphasises the person, not the disability. For instance, this means writing ‘a person with a disability’ rather than ‘a disabled person’.

Putting the person first makes the disability just one aspect of the person, rather than the defining characteristic. Here are some examples of people-first language, along with a few other related terms.

Use Don’t use
accessible parking handicap parking
disability handicap
has (e.g. she has muscular dystrophy) suffers from, is a victim of
people without disabilities, typical person, non-disabled person normal/healthy/able-bodied person
person in a vegetative state a vegetable
person who has epilepsy an epileptic
person who has mental illness the mentally ill, crazy, psycho, mental case
person who stutters stutterer, person who stammers
person who uses a wheelchair/wheelchair user person who is wheelchair-bound/confined to a wheelchair
person with a disability/physical disability cripple, invalid, lame, abnormal person, deformed
person with a drug addiction addict
person with alcoholism alcoholic
person with a learning disability/learning disabilities/an intellectual disability mentally retarded/mentally handicapped person, mentally disabled, intellectually disabled
person with a mental health condition mental patient/person, insane, mad
person with cerebral palsy spastic
person with dementia demented, senile
person with Down syndrome Mongoloid
person with dwarfism, little person midget
person with paraplegia paraplegic
person with schizophrenia schizophrenic
psychiatric hospital, mental health hospital asylum
sustained/received an injury suffered an injury

Identity-first language

Some communities prefer to use identity-first rather than people-first language. This is particularly true of self-advocates in the autism and Deaf communities. Many autistic people prefer to be referred to as autistic/an autistic person, rather than a person with autism, because they understand autism as an inherent part of their identity. This issue is discussed in more detail in this article by the Autistic Self Advocacy Network on identity-first language.

Many people who use sign language as their first language identify as part of the Deaf community and may describe themselves as Deaf (with a capital D).

It’s important to be aware of these preferences, especially to avoid ‘correcting’ people who use identity-first language to refer to themselves or their community. If in doubt, it’s always best to ask people what type of language they prefer, or have your text reviewed by a community member.

Use Don’t use
Deaf/deaf deaf and dumb, deaf-mute, mute
hard of hearing hearing impaired
hearing people normal people

There are some excellent online resources on disability language, including the Disability Language Style Guide by the National Centre on Disability and Journalism in the US. Have a look at the list below if you would like more information.

References and further information

National Centre on Disability and Journalism – Disability Language Style Guide

Inclusive communication

Inclusive language: words to use and avoid when writing about disability

Portraying disability

How to write about disability

Ableist language

‘Crazy’ and ableist language

Deaf terms

Person-first versus identity-first language

People-first language

Wikipedia: People-first language

Wikipedia: disability-related terms with negative connotations

Ableism and language

Communicating With and About People with Disabilities

Should You Use Person-First or Identity-First Language?

Identity-First Language

By Jayne Fox, German-English medical translator and editor. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this article. Head over to Google+ or Twitter to continue the conversation!