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Seven Guidelines on Referring to Differently-abled Individuals

Lowcountry Down Syndrome Society’s Seven Guidelines on Referring to Differently-abled Individuals

Just like any other identifiable group of people, not all people with different abilities agree on any particular language or terminology. You may encounter different preferences from individual to individual in how they refer to themselves and how they would like you to refer to them.

Generally speaking, the most commonly accepted way of communicating that reflects knowledge and respect for people with different abilities is called “People First Language.” PFL chooses words that recognize the person as the primary reference, and not his or her different abilities. PFL has also been widely adopted for use by media professionals as well as other professions and the general public. Its basic rules are to put people first, thereby putting the focus and subject on the person.

While Lowcountry Down Syndrome Society (LDSS) agrees with PFL’s top rule of never focusing on a person’s different ability, we have further adopted the use of “differently-abled” as a descriptor because we believe this speaks to the individual’s abilities, instead of their different abilities.

Below are our Seven Guidelines on Referring to Differently-abled Individuals:

  • When describing an individual with a different ability, do not refer to his/her differences unless it is relevant to the story. If you must refer to a condition, use neutral language. For example, state the facts about the condition, saying, “The child has cerebral palsy” instead of, “The child is disabled.”
  • It is “Down syndrome” – not “Downs Syndrome” or any other variation. The “S” of syndrome is only capitalized when part of a title, such as, “Lowcountry Down Syndrome Society.”
  • Avoid using the following terms: “disability,” “afflicted with,” “stricken with,” “suffers from,” “victim of,” “defect,” “defective,” “special,” “special needs,” “these people,” “those kids” or “invalid.” For example, never say, “He/She suffers from cerebral palsy.” Instead, simply state, “He/She has cerebral palsy” or use the term, “differently-abled.”
  • Avoid editorial or subjective comments such as: “They are so sweet;” “They are so nice;” “They are so loving.” Just like any other person, there is much more to an individual with different abilities than just “being nice.”
  • The words “handicap” and “handicapped” should be avoided unless you are talking about specific laws, regulations, places or things such as “handicapped parking.” For example, the term “accessible” is preferable to “handicapped accessible.”
  • If an individual’s condition is pertinent to the story, refer to the individual first and the condition second. For example, never say, “Down syndrome child.” Instead, say, “The child with Down syndrome.”
  • Don’t make a condition sound like a disease and never refer to a condition as an illness. Additionally, when referring to a person who is not impaired, avoid using the terms “able-bodied,” “able bodies” or “temporarily able-bodied.”

Remember, the goal is always about expressing the unlimited potential of everyone regardless of their challenges. The word “typical” can be used to describe people without physical or developmental challenges.

For additional information, refer to the Georgia Council on Developmental Disability’s (GCDD) PFL handbook for the media at: http://gcdd.org/news-a-media/people-first-language.html#sthash.pYnuhHPd.dpuf


The Lowcountry Down Syndrome Society is a family support group to benefit people with Down syndrome and their families through local leadership, outreach, education and advocacy to champion and celebrate acceptance and inclusion.

The Lowcountry Down Syndrome Society envisions a world in which all people with different abilities have the opportunity to create their own path in order to enhance their quality of life, realize their life aspirations, and become valued members of welcoming communities.