What is the correct term for a disabled person?

Featured Articles

What is the correct term for disabled person? Two people are having a conversation on a green lawn, while a pet dog plays with them. One of the people is disabled.

What is the correct term for a disabled person: ‘person with a disability’ or ‘disabled person’?

Is it a person with a disability or a disabled person? The answer to the question of what is the correct term for a disabled person lies in how people talk about themselves.

, Professor, Queen's University, Ontario

In February 2019, a woman with an obvious physical disability was asked to leave a grocery store in Alberta, Canada, and not come back because she could not pack her own groceries quickly enough. 

According to the CBC’s Go Public report, the checkout clerk said she was slowing down the line as she struggled to bag her groceries, and the store said no staff were available to help her. Presumably, neither were other patrons.

This story is consistent with what many disabled people say they experience. The Canadian Human Rights Commission says that almost 60 percent of all claims cite disability as the basis for discrimination.


Disabled people are routinely denied the rights to which we all know they are entitled. A 2015 poll commissioned by the Rick Hansen Foundation found that 90 percent of Canadians agree that accessibility for disabled people is a right, not a privilege. However, there is still a clear prejudice in how disabled people are treated.

Disability is a sensitive topic. Knowing how to talk about disability is confusing for some people. Fear of saying the wrong thing prevents people from saying anything at all and makes us avoid having important conversations about disability. This avoidance, in turn, creates the kind of toxic environment that leads to situations such as the one described above.

In our research at the Canadian Disability Policy Alliance, we worked with disability advocacy groups to assemble some guidelines to help readers gain confidence in their ability to participate in positive ways in the dialogue with disabled people. Here, we share those guidelines:

Correct term for disabled person: ‘person with a disability’ vs ‘disabled person’?

Perhaps we should listen to how disabled people talk about themselves

The Canadian government has advocated “people-first” language which emphasizes putting the person first and the disability second: for example, saying a person with a spinal cord injury, or a person with a history of depression. 

Many disabled people, however, say the disability is not inside of them: they are not a “person with a disability.”Rather they are a “disabled person” — someone who is disabled by a world that is not equipped to allow them to participate and flourish. But they are a person either way.

Avoid objectifying people by referring to them as “the disabled.” Infantilizing disabled people by talking down to them also needs to be avoided.

In answering the question, what is the correct term for a disabled person, our advice is to listen to how people talk about their disability themselves and take your cue from them. 

Avoid euphemistic language when talking about disabled people

Language like “differently-abled” or “diverse-ability” suggests there is something wrong with talking honestly and candidly about disability. 

It might even suggest to some people that there is something shameful about disability; or that we can’t talk about it directly unless we make it cute, pretty, or funny.

Avoid an unnecessary emotional tone

Disability is a fact of life. For almost one-quarter of Canadians living with a disability is a reality. Having a disability doesn’t make someone a hero, a saint, a victim, a burden, or a soldier. Disabled people are definitely not your inspiration.

This hyperbole gets in the way of authentic relationships with disabled people. These words suggest one-dimensional characters. Instead, think of complex, interesting people, just like everyone else.

Can I use the word handicap?

Is the word handicap offensive? The short answer is yes. The word handicap or handicapped is viewed as having a negative connotation — an implication that disabled people are disadvantaged in society. That social disadvantage is something we should fight against rather than merely accept and enshrine in language. 

Although the word handicap is still used in some countries, it is definitely not the correct term for a disabled person. In addition to handicap, the term special needs is increasingly not seen as a correct term for a disabled person.

Read more: Stop saying special needs parent

Avoid calling a disabled person a ‘patient’

A patient is a passive individual who has turned over responsibility for important decisions to a health professional. Disabled people, for the most part, live independent lives in the community. They are no more patients than anyone else, getting on with their lives in the community.

Avoid calling non-disabled people ‘normal’

If non-disabled people are normal, then that means that disabled people are abnormal. Yet disability is the norm for some people. It is alienating and marginalizing to classify someone as “abnormal.”

Refer to a person’s disability?

Is the disability a pertinent issue in the conversation you are having or the introduction you are making? We don’t specify a person’s gender, ethnicity, occupation, or any other personal details when introducing them. Disability is a condition of life, like those others. It will be salient in some conversations and not in others.

Here are some ‘dos’ when it comes to talking with disabled person

  • Do look disabled people in the eyes and address them courteously, as you would anyone else.
  • Do ask if you can help and how you can help.
  • Do assume that people with disabilities have something to say, and be prepared to hear it.
  • Do talk about disability. It’s a fact of life for so many people across the world.

The more we talk about disability, the easier it gets to have the important conversations we need to have with disabled people and to ensure that the rights we promise to all Canadians are extended to them.

Article by
The Conversation

The Conversation is a network of not-for-profit media outlets that publish news stories written by academics and researchers.


Disability is a sensitive topic. Fear of saying the wrong thing prevents people from saying anything at all and makes us avoid having important conversations. Knowing the correct term for a disabled person is a good place to start. | ©M.Dörr & M.Frommherz / Adobe Stock