12 different ways to say disabled

handicapped-Parking-signOur son Gus was born with a genetic defect called Trisomy 12p. I never liked referring to him as “disabled,” and when he was in elementary school I dodged the d-word by referring to the other kids at the school as “average.”

“Gus is in a self-contained classroom most of the day,” I’d tell other parents. “But he eats lunch and goes to music and art classes with the average kids.” I was pleased with the way that phrasing turned the word-game on its head. I hoped it gave them an idea of how it felt to hear a child referred to by a title you didn’t care for — few parents think of their children as “average.”

There’s a lot of discussion on social media now about the use of the term “disabled” to describe someone who has an impairment that sets them apart from the majority. A post on BBC’s Ouch blog Wednesday explained what the discussion is all about.

The post defined “dis” as having a primitive, negative or reversing force. “To discredit. To disengage. And in recent parlance “diss,” with an extra “s”, has been popularized as an abbreviation of disrespect – don’t diss me.”

The post points out that “dis” is not a prefix people want to put on a child, or on themselves, either. “It is, after all, inherently negative.” Potential replacements for describing someone as “Having a disability” were peppered throughout the post. I’m listing them here along with terms I’ve heard bandied about as well:

  • having a dis-ability
  • having a disAbility
  • differently able
  • special
  • with special needs
  • different
  • mutant
  • humanly different
  • unable
  • inspirational
  • possessing a form of human variation
  • having a reality to be accommodated

So what do you think? Is there a word or phrase on this list you prefer using when referring to someone with an impairment that sets them apart from the majority? Can you choose a favorite from this list? Tell us in the comments, and if you have any others to suggest, please leave them in the comments, too. I’m all ears!


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  1. Rachel Says:

    The term I use is disabled. I feel like so many of these, but especially differently-abled came out of the guilty consciences of abilests people feeling guilty for for their privilege (in today’s culture if you’re not apologizing/feeling guilty for something you’re doing something wrong it seems like), for not helping people when they should have for maybe not holding the door for somebody who really was struggling to physically move, for maybe saying the wrong thing to someone with a disability.

    The truth is that nobody but disabled individuals get to define our pronouns but us and so all the rest of you need to butt out that includes parents that includes people who are physically fine and have perfectly functioning bodies perfectly normal function brains that’s not your job to define what we those who do not function at the same levels call ourselves.

  2. Ainslee Hooper Says:

    The comments here are very interesting. The list of terms to use are problematic. As a person with a disability, anything other than disabled or disability is ableist. I have a disability and I am disabled not just because of my condition, but because society is not accessible for me. All the inspiration type phrases result in what’s known as “inspiration porn” and this results in the real problems in society not being addressed. I’m not inspirational, I’m living my life in a world that’s yet to be fully accessible to me. It deflects responsibility. It’s also important to note that people who do not have a disability should not be weighing into a conversation about what should and shouldn’t be said. People without disabilities should be asking us and questioning why they have thought about us the way they have for so long.

  3. Nicole Schroeder Says:

    By refusing to call your child disabled, you’re denying his membership in a powerful, strong, and resilient community. Disability culture is real, disability history is real, disability community is real.

    If you need resources, please look into Simi Linton’s Claiming Disability. Identifying as disabled (as I do) is not a negative. I’m a historian of disability, and I studied Latin in undergrad. Assuming that disability stands for inability is just plain wrong from a historical standpoint and a modern one.

    Disabled people can be called disabled or a “person with a disability.” Those terms guarantee us rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Any other term is a euphemism that continues a history of discrimination against disabled people.

    If you’re able bodied, you don’t get to choose what you call us. We get to choose. “Differently able, mutant, different, special,” etc are all basically slurs. They are acts of disability inspiration porn that cast us as inherently Other rather than casting us as the largest minority community on Earth. You do your son a disservice by denying his status as a disabled individual.

  4. Autistictic Says:

    Disabled is not a dirty word.

    It correctly labels that we are disabled…by our conditions, but also by an inaccessible society. Acknowledging this is important – for self-acceptance, self-advocacy, understanding, but also to acknowledge and dismantle the barriers society puts up.

    Euphemisms don’t help disabled people.
    They just make abled people feel better.

    Seeing the mental gymnastics abled people go through to avoid simply accurately acknowledging disabled people‘s lived reality is exhausting honestly.

    Just say disabled.

    Please learn from disabled people why identity first language is so important.

  5. Ghd Sports Says:

    The Disability Rights Movement advocates for positive changes in society. These changes include equal rights under the law and equal access to housing and employment.

  6. Yuri Rita Says:

    You give too much power to labels.
    I have two autistic adult children. I told them when they were young they are autistic, not broken and not less than. I told them at that young age the term disability is just a box checked on a form. I will let them make their own choice how they feel about it as they learn more about it.
    As their mom I don’t take the labels personal. I think of them as just service qualifiers and terms to send their service providers in the right direction. Those are good things that labels can do.

    Meanwhile, I find it disturbing that you put so much stock in labels that you are bragging about what you feel is insulting the “average” children of innocent parents who’s only offense was they may have used the term society has said is the proper way to refer to disabled people, as disabled.
    You weren’t even the one labeled?!?!

    Real turn about is the disabled person slapping a label on everyone else. That’s what my kids did. Because it’s just the 3 of us in our home, when young they thought they were normal and I was really weird. So when my eldest was learning the term autism and I explained it just means her brain works different than mine making somethings more challenging for her, while also pointing out what her brain is better at than mine like directions, she decided since she’s the normal one that the rest of us were “non-autistic”.
    My son then shortened it to nautistic. Since that day they have continued to refer to me as nautistic.

    That’s turning around the label word play. It also puts labels into perspective. They only have power if you give it to them. Otherwise, they are just silly words.
    I say call let your son decide. He may want to call himself disabled, or different, or awesome, or George. It may be very important to him to be called disabled, or he may not care because he sees himself as normal. He’ll know what’s right for him when the day comes.

    I think a one or two word term is not enough to accurately describe the huge variety of disabled people but if we have to pick one I vote for PERFECT, exactly as they were born to be.
    I myself am nautistic. So are you.

  7. Yuri Rita Says:

    I forgot to add that due to a very painful chronic disease I’ve had for almost 20 years I too am disabled. And different. And nautistic. And perfect.
    Aren’t labels fun?!?!

  8. faith_salon Says:

    Ok phew- someone did- thought I was losing my mind. Most of those terms sound ridiculous and are offensive.

  9. faith_salon Says:

    I’m sorry..but did anyone comment on MUTANT?????

  10. Tony Bennet Says:

    what’s wrong with just saying he has Trisomy 12p. people will ask what that is and you get the chance to tell them his needs.

    Technically disabled means to put out of action completely. I’m sure a term that can mean something is completely useless has a subliminal subconscious effect on how we view someone, when it’s applied to a person.

  11. shannon s colclough Says:

    I’m a special education teacher and I don’t like when parents nor teachers use the phrase special needs. I would prefer a person to say John has a disability.

  12. Kate Says:

    As a person who lives with Epilepsy and a rare form of Auto-immune syndrome that affects my mobility, I have a problem with the word beginning with a negative prefix. As a consequence I feel I am being defined by my limitations

  13. Vanessa Blevins Says:

    Disability is not a bad word, or an inherently bad thing. It’s ableist to substitute the word.

  14. Connie Kelly Says:


  15. Martin Hall Says:

    Speaking as a disabled person, please don’t say any of these. Say disabled, it’s not a dirty word.

  16. Suzanne Adornato Says:

    First of all I dont understand why we need labels although I did like diverse learning. Remember anyone who has problems to work out can teach us alot. Respect not pity will help you find the right words. Why not just deal with issues as these arise ex. Would love to participate in that activity but not sure how to work out with my wheelchair just yet.

  17. Andrea Says:

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with calling your kid disabled. It’s an experience they have whether you accept it or not. And as someone who has parents who denied my disability experience since before I even started Kindergarten, it’s really important that parents don’t do that. Instead of finding work arounds to infuse humanity into your child or their condition, educate yourself on disability and the disabled self-advocacy community. Update your understanding of what it means to be disabled because your kid is and always will be disabled. And that is something you need to embrace in order to effectively accommodate them. Also, on the subject of the prefix “dis” it is commonly understood to mean “not” and when placed together with the word “abled” it means we are “not abled”. To outsiders–like yourself and many people who coin euphemistic terms for disability–this is often understood negatively. Yet, it can be understood in two similar ways: 1. “not able” to do something–i.e. why we need accommodations to either help us do something or to allow us to work together with someone who can do that particular thing for us. Being unable to do something is so stigmatized that people would rather not acknowledge one’s inability to do it but enthusiastically say they can “do it differently” which is not always the case. For example, a wheelchair user who cannot walk, cannot walk. It doesn’t matter how much you want them to, their reality is that they must engage in the act of movement in a different way. This is often done through their use of their wheelchair, which allows them to roll. Rolling is not the same thing as walking–it is an alternative form of movement. It is not lesser yet by only wanting to attribute it to it’s similarities with walking and not allowing it to have the agency and identity that is unique to that method and experience, you then place it beneath walking as a form of sub-category. Similarly, non-speaking kids don’t speak to communicate. A lot of parents/caregivers have a hard time accepting that and will often fail to provide necessary communication devices in lieu of not wanting to “hinder speech”. Being able to type or text to communicate is not sub-communication. It’s not always supplementary. It is necessary and should be respected. Being unable to speak is so stigmatized that people would rather not accept one’s present and/or future inability to do so in favor of instilling communication supports that allow for expression in the way that works best for the person. The second way “not able” could be understood is by saying we’re not “able bodied”. Because we’re not. And that’s okay because we’re still whole and fully human. You shouldn’t skirt around the reality of someone’s disabled experience in order to express or accept that.

  18. Jesser Horowitz Says:

    I am disabled. I am disabled not because of my medical condition (I’m autistic), but because I am in a society that was not built for me. Disability is a word that is written into the law and protects your rights, it connects you to a larger community of activists who have fought their entire life to preserve your basic human dignity. By not using the word disabled, you buy into the ableist societal narrative that disability is bad, that it is inherently wrong, and shameful, and you turn your back on a long history of activists who fought to protect us. I am disabled. I have never ,et someone who identifies as “differently abled” or “special needs”. Whenever I hear it, I feel like I’m going to have an aneurism. I’m not a child, I will not be condescended to like one. I will not be buried underneath politically correct language crafted by neurotypical and able-bodied people to make me seem like I fit in with society. I will not make myself more convenient for you. You have to deal with me. I am disabled, I am happy that I am who I am, I proud, and I will continue to fight for my rights.

  19. Ambrose Says:

    I’m a disabled person, in multiple ways, and I genuinely hate “nonoffensive” alternatives for disabled. Disabled is not a dirty word, and many disabled activists have serious issues with it. Many disabled people find these patronizing. If you have a disabled child, you aren’t disabled, and it’s not your job to decide what’s “offensive” for us and what’s not. Just say disabled.

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  21. ariana thakur Says:

    Hello there,
    I’m trying to write an essay about raising awareness and including everybody with disabilities, but I’m really confused at what I should say instead of ‘disabled’ because every website, tells me different things and I don’t really want to be rude to anyone.

  22. Rebecca R Politzer Says:

    Offensive not defensive should have checked that before I posted it Point still stands though just use the word disabled I promise you we don’t mind

  23. Rebecca R Politzer Says:

    Jesus Christ at least three-quarters of these are far more defensive than disabled this is coming from an autistic person

  24. Sas Says:

    People of Determination is the most inspiring word I have ever come across.

  25. Kathleen Says:

    Unable sounds very negative and doesn’t match up to reality. I can do things, I just find it difficult and it takes a lot longer.Just use the term disabled. It’s less patronising that way. If there’s any new word to come up with, let disabled people do it. And that means disabled people, not carers and certainly not abled parents if disabled children.3/3

  26. Kathleen Says:

    Different is vague and euphemistic, am I different because I have green eyes? Only 2% of people have them so it’s definitely a difference. Mutant is OK to say if you’re referring to yourself and no one else, in a self deprecating, dark humour way. Absolutely shouldn’t be used by abled people. 2/3

  27. Yvette Says:

    Unique individual

  28. Muhammad Farooq Bakali Says:

    I would say they are special because they are doing extra ordinary efforts to come into mainstream.I am engaged with my special friends for last three decades and confident that they can do anything they want.

  29. Shoaib Ghaziani Says:

    I suggest Differently Able,

  30. jalsfjl;dsafdsa Says:

    Hey, as someone with a disability, I’d much prefer the term… “Disability.” Y’all are confusing the term disability with the phrase “giving up.” I am disabled. I accept the fact that I am disabled. I have hard hearing problems and need hearing aids, but they’re just too expensive. There’s nothing wrong about disability; it just tells you that there is one thing wrong with you and it’s more of a warning to others that something is wrong and they may need to adjust to your disability. Disability is not a bad word; in fact, it gives me a sense of power. Use what you like, but please don’t treat it as a bad word.

  31. nabs Says:

    hello all , i want to create a dating app for people with different ability , can i have your thoughts?

  32. Shreya Setia Says:

    All the kids are special, but those who are differently able, have special qualities in them.

    They put more efforts to live the life in a positive and inspirational ways.

    Here are some: http://www.mbcnschool.org/blog/celebrity-defeated-disability/

  33. Beth Finke Says:

    The Bionic Man. Love it.

  34. Terrie Says:

    My nephew, who has juvenile onset arthritis and is now nearing 30 years old, refers to himself as “bionic,” since he has had a hip replacement and ankle surgery.

  35. Wiktor Johnson Says:

    This is really the thing which can not be avoided. And so the KCIL seeks to ensure that all disabled people live independently with happiness.

  36. Beth Finke Says:

    Oh, AJ, how I wish it were a joke, but people actually use that word. It was one of the ones listed on the Ouch blog I referred to in my post. I think Delwyne, who left the comment before yours, has it right. When teaching children in school, call them all kids!

  37. AC Says:

    Seriously – MUTANT? Is this a joke??

  38. Delwyne Says:

    I work with preschoolers and we don’t refer to any of our students as disabled or handicapped or any other terms like that.
    We have diverse learners in our centre with diverse needs.

  39. AMY Says:

    Having a son with Autism, I STRONGLY disapprove of the “R” word and of the label of “incompetent”! I refuse to hear those words.I will correct anyone that speaks to me and uses those phrases. So my favorite from the list is “diffently able”. Because indviduals with disabilities maybe different, they are always able!

  40. Peter Taylor Says:

    I cannot hear properly, have difficulty in walking through very painful left hip. Living alone as my young 45 years old wife died of cancer. Have to cook, wash, clean, iron, drive, shop all at my age of 76. I fight to do all I can to avoid being called disabled.

  41. Stephanie Says:


  42. Stephanie Says:


  43. Beth Finke Says:


  44. Beth Finke Says:

    Hadn’t heard that one before. I like it!

  45. Beth Finke Says:

    Good one — but does that cover, say, people who are hard of hearing? People with certain forms of autism? Not sure…

  46. Beth Finke Says:

    Hmmm. I don’t think I’ll add that one to the list on my blog post, but you are absolutely right: it is a diss.

  47. Joshua Hargett Says:

    The “R” word needs to be added! Its also a Dis

  48. Lu Ann Frisch Says:

    I vote for mobility challenged.

  49. Connie Kelly Says:

    Altabled, or alternatively abled.

  50. Faisal Says:

    We are not disable we are able but yes differently so we’re differently-able. Disable is like unable or useless but we are useful in our on ways.

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