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Disability Resource Center

More Alike Than Different


Some of the strongest tools we have are our words and the impressions they leave on the listener. Positive language reflects a positive attitude. What is your language saying? It is important to stress that the language used to refer to or to describe people with disabilities is constantly changing. It is not always easy to know what is in current use. However, if our language is positive, we will always be "correct".

Acquired Brain Injury (ABI)

ABI is an acronym for acquired brain injury and/or impairment caused by an external trauma such as a stroke. It may result in total or partial functional limitations that adversely affect or limit a person's speech, reasoning, memory, motor abilities, or social behavior. Acquired or traumatic brain injury is the acceptable term for this disability.

Blind or Low Vision

Blind describes a condition in which a person has a temporary or permanent loss of vision. Blind is still in current usage, but the term low vision is the generic term preferred by individuals to refer to all degrees of vision loss.

Cleft Lip

Cleft lip/palate describes a specific congenital disability involving the upper lip and gum and/or palate. It is a condition that can be corrected surgically. Any other terms such as "harelip" are anatomically incorrect and stigmatizing. The term cleft lip/palate is preferred.

Deaf or Hard of Hearing

Deafness refers to a profound degree of hearing loss that prevents understanding speech through the ear. It includes both hard of hearing and deaf in its reference. Hard of hearing refers to a mild to moderate hearing loss that may or may not need to be corrected with amplification. The Deaf are very proud of their culture and choose to be called Deaf. Hard of Hearing is the generic term preferred to indicate any degree of hearing loss from mild to profound.

Intellectual Disability (previously Developmental Disability)

An intellectual disability is a mental disability that has an onset before age 22 and may continue indefinitely. The term includes individuals with autism, sensory impairments, mental illness, and congenital disabilities. Mentally retarded is an unacceptable term when referring to people with this disability. Developmental disability is the preferred term when referring to any disability that causes measurable intellectual impairment.

Down Syndrome

Down Syndrome is caused by improper chromosomal division during fetal development that results in varying degrees of developmental disabilities. Any reference to Mongoloid/Mongol is unacceptable. When referring to this population, a person with Down Syndrome is preferred.

Learning Disability

A learning disability is a permanent condition that affects the way some individuals take in, retain and express information. Some groups prefer to use a specific learning disability (i.e. dyslexia) because it emphasizes that only certain learning processes are affected. For general use, person with a learning disability is acceptable.

Psychological or Mental Disability

Mental Disability is any illness of the mind, such as altered perceptions, memory, emotional balance, thought or behavior. The terms "emotional disability", "mental disability", "mental illness" and "psychiatric disability" are acceptable whereas "emotional disorder", "mentally sick", "emotional disturbance" and "mental disorder" are considered negative and should be avoided except in their medical context. Words such as manic, lunatic, demented, possessed or psycho are offensive and should never be applied to people facing mental health problems.

Small Stature

Dwarfism is an accepted medical term, but it should not be used as general terminology. Terms such as "little people" or "midget" imply less than full adult status in society. The preferred generic term is person of small stature.


Spastic describes a muscle with sudden abnormal of involuntary spasms. Spastic is never used to describe someone with a disability. Muscles are spastic, people are not.

For more detailed disability definitions, see the Dictionary of Disability Terminology link.

All college information or academic materials are available in alternate media upon request at (408) 848-4865.
For more DRC information, call 408-848-4865 or TTY at 408-846-4924.
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Last modified: January 24, 2015
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