Using Respectful and Appropriate Disability Language

By Dato’ Dr Amar-Singh HSS

This is an open letter to all media practitioners, especially editors, Members of Parliament (MPs) and State Assemblies (ADUNs), and Ministers. We thank those of you who have demonstrated support of persons with disabilities.

With Malaysia’s aspiration to be a developed nation, it is time to consider the use of inappropriate language for referring to persons with disabilities and disability-related matters. How do we use terminology that shapes behaviour, to break barriers and exclusion? Not reinforce those.

Respectful and appropriate disability language in communication acknowledges the dignity and celebrates the diversity of persons with disabilities. It does not reinforce negative stereotyping and derogatory labels that connote pity and lesser value. Each time that respectful and appropriate language is used is a blow to discrimination on the basis of disability.

Respectful and appropriate disability language also recognizes that disability is not the defining characteristic of a person, but rather one aspect of individual identity and experience.

We would like to share some general principles of respectful / appropriate disability language and hope that this will translate into better media reporting and comments / statements made by Ministers, MPs and ADUNs.

First, it is important to respect the preferences and choices of persons with disabilities regarding how they want to be referred to. When in doubt, just ask the person with disability.

Second, please avoid euphemisms or terms that are patronising, offensive or inaccurate. For example, do not use terms such as “special needs”, “differently abled”, “handicapped”, or “mentally retarded.” These terms imply that disability is something to be ashamed of, to be hidden or avoided. It reinforces the medical model that views disability as “an anomaly” to be medically “fixed” and persons with disabilities as “damaged” and “incomplete.” Instead, acknowledge the centrality of the person (see table below) and use clear and respectful terms, such as “disability”, “accessibility”, “accommodation”, or “inclusion”.

One common incorrect reference to the non-disabled population is “normal” or “healthy.” This reinforces the wrong view that persons with disabilities (the OKU community) is somehow “abnormal” or “unhealthy.” It is best to use “non-disabled” in place of “normal” or “healthy.”

Third, avoid terms that underscore a “victim” attitude towards disability, such as “suffering from”, “afflicted with”, “confined to”, or “victim of.” These terms perpetrate outdated views that disability is a burden, a tragedy and a source of pity. Instead, use neutral or positive terms, such as “living with”, “experiencing” or “has”,

Some persons may prefer identity-first language, such as “Autistic person” or “Deaf person”, rather than person-first language e.g. “person with autism”.

The table below offers suggested terms to use and words to avoid for some common disabilities; it is not exhaustive. It lists some suggested terms in accordance with international conventions – see the United Nations, 2022, Disability-Inclusive Communications Guidelines.

Terminology that dignifies persons with disabilities and the OKU community Inappropriate terminology to be avoided
Persons with disabilities or Disabled Persons

Person with disability or disabled person

Differently abled

Special needs child/person

Special person

Orang Kurang Upaya (OKU) Orang Kelainan Upaya

Kanak-kanak Istimewa


Person with intellectual disability

Person with intellectual impairment

Retard, idiot, imbecile, moron,

Feeble-minded, mental defective

Mentally challenged/retarded

Person with Down Syndrome Mongoloid or Down
Deaf person and Hard-of-Hearing person Deaf and dumb


Hearing Impaired

Blind person, Low-Vision person

Person with visual impairment

Deafblind person

The blind

The visually impaired

Autistic person or person with autism Avoid adding any of the following:

”low-functioning” or ‘high-functioning”; “mild”, “moderate” or “severe”

Person with albinism Albino
Person with cerebral palsy Spastic


Persons with psychosocial disabilities Survivors and users of psychiatry/psychiatric services Crazy, loony, mental, insane



Persons with dementia

Persons living with dementia

Demented, senile


Little person, person of short stature Midget, dwarf, stunted

Person with a mobility impairment/disability

Person who uses a mobility device


Physically challenged


Person or

address the person by the person’s given name


“Case”/ Case number

Accessible parking

Parking reserved for persons with disabilities Accessible bathroom

Accessible/disability-inclusive building

Disabled/handicapped parking

Handicapped bathroom

Handicapped friendly building


Language is constantly evolving. The change happens as disabled persons change, as do community understanding of our relationships, rights, place in society and aspirations for the future.

The key is to remain respectful of each other, as we work towards ensuring that everyone’s place in society is enabled and we grow as an inclusive society. Using respectful and appropriate language empowers the individual and the community. It is time that we as a nation change our use of demeaning terminology, to respect persons with disabilities. Let’s remember this: disability does not limit a person, it is the inaccessible environment that stops progress. And, our choice of language shapes that environment.

Show More

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button