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. Sas Says:

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

  2. 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

  3. 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

  4. Yvette Says:

    Unique individual

  5. 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.

  6. Shoaib Ghaziani Says:

    I suggest Differently Able,

  7. 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.

  8. nabs Says:

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

  9. 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/

  10. Beth Finke Says:

    The Bionic Man. Love it.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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!

  14. AC Says:

    Seriously – MUTANT? Is this a joke??

  15. 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.

  16. 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!

  17. 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.

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  21. Beth Finke Says:

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

  22. Beth Finke Says:

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

  23. 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.

  24. Joshua Hargett Says:

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

  25. Lu Ann Frisch Says:

    I vote for mobility challenged.

  26. Connie Kelly Says:

    Altabled, or alternatively abled.

  27. 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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