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Disability language

Use words and images that portray disabled people in ways that promote full equality, inclusion and participation.

In New Zealand, we use the term ‘disabled person’ as outlined in the New Zealand Disability Strategy rather than ‘person with a disability’.

However, when referring to an individual, ask what term they use to refer to themselves — different disabled people have different backgrounds, communities, and ideas that can influence what term they prefer.

Models of disability

When writing about disability, it’s helpful to understand the models that are used to define disability. Today, we use the social model, which has replaced the now out-of-date medical model.

The Social Model of Disability

The social model says that a person is disabled by society rather than by their body or abilities. This model looks at what is wrong with and needs fixing in society.

The Medical Model of Disability

The medical model says people are disabled by their impairments or differences. This model looks at what is wrong with and needs fixing in the person.


  • Use respectful terms for disability and mental health.
  • Focus on positive outcomes and personal strengths.
  • Use language that respects disabled people as active individuals with control over their own lives.
  • Do not reference a medical, mental or cognitive condition unless it’s relevant.
  • Avoid using ‘disorder’ unless it’s part of a formal diagnosis — for example, Auditory Processing Disorder or Attention Deficit Disorder.
  • Avoid using language that contributes to society’s negative stereotypes about disability.
  • Avoid language that portrays disabled people as victims, such as ‘suffers from’ and ‘challenged by’.
  • Avoid phrases that may associate impairments with negative things — for example, ‘blind drunk’ or ‘deaf to our pleas’.
  • Avoid using ‘help’, which suggests a weakness, and use ‘support’ instead — for example, ‘the support worker can support you with your cooking’.


  • Do not use cartoons or portray disabled adults as if they were children.
  • Use images of disabled people doing a range of things, like shopping, taking a holiday, attending a lecture, playing sport, getting married, rather than stereotypical images that portray them as pitiable.


Table 1: Terms to avoid and words to use instead
Avoid Preferred

Afflicted by, suffers from, victim of

Has / with (name of condition or impairment).

For example, person with cerebral palsy

Attack, spell, fit


Birth defects, deformity

Person born with a disability

Person with a disability from birth

The blind

Blind people


Person with a physical disability

Person with a mobility impairment

Person who walks with crutches

Person who uses a walker

Deaf-mute, deaf and dumb

The Deaf / person who is deaf — New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) users identify with this term

Person who is deaf or the deaf (non-NZSL user)



Disclosing a disability

Telling people about a disability

Dwarf, midget

Person of short stature


Person who has epilepsy

Hearing impaired, hard of hearing

Person who is hard of hearing


Person with a mobility impairment

Mentally retarded, retard, slow

Person with an intellectual / learning disability


Person without a disability

People who are visually impaired/ have serious sight problems/loss

People who have a visual impairment

People who have special needs

People with diverse needs


Person who has schizophrenia


Person who has muscle spasms

The symptoms of a condition

The effects of a condition

Wheelchair bound, confined to a wheelchair

Someone who uses a wheelchair or wheelchair user

More information

The language about disability — Office for Disability Issues

New Zealand Disability Strategy 2016 – 2026

Disabled Person Assembly New Zealand

Deaf culture — Ministry of Education

People with disability — Australian Government Style Manual

Writing about people — Content Design London

Words to avoid and specialist words

Utility links and page information

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