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Disability language

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

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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, always 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 Today, we use the social model, which has replaced the now out-of-date medical model.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 portrays disabled people as active individuals with control over their own lives.
  • Avoid using language that contributes to society’s negative stereotypes about disability.
  • Do not reference a medical, neurological or neurodevelopmental condition unless it’s relevant.


  • Only use the word ‘impairment’ when you’re relating it to a medical condition — for example, ‘a person with a hearing impairment’ — and never apply the term directly to people, such as saying ‘people with impairments’.
  • The descriptive terms for the broad medical categories of ‘impairments’ in disability are:
    • physical
    • hearing or auditory
    • vision
    • speech
    • learning, cognitive or neurological.
  • Not everyone who has a learning impairment has a cognitive impairment, in that they may have difficulties with certain mental tasks but have a normal IQ — an example of a learning difficulty is dyslexia, an example of a cognitive disorder is dementia, and an example of a neurological impairment is a headache.
  • Avoid using ‘disorder’ unless it’s part of a formal diagnosis — for example, Auditory Processing Disorder (APD) or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
  • Avoid language that portrays disabled people as victims, such as ‘suffers from’ and ‘challenged by’.
  • Do not say a person is inspirational only because of their disability.
  • Avoid phrases that may associate disability with negative things — for example, ‘blind drunk’ or ‘deaf to our pleas’.


  • 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 and getting married, rather than stereotypical images that portray them as pitiable.


Terms to avoid and words to use instead
Avoid Preferred
Afflicted by, struggles with, suffers from, victim of

Has or with [name of condition or type of impairment].

For example, person who has a cognitive impairment, or person with cerebral palsy

Albino Person with or who has albinism
Attack, spell, fit Seizure
Birth defects, deformity

Born with [name of disability or condition, or type of impairment]

For example, person born with dyslexia, or person born with learning impairments

The blind  Blind people

Person with a physical disability, or  person with a mobility impairment 

Person who walks with crutches, or person who uses a walker

Deaf-mute, deaf and dumb

Person who is Deaf (New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) users identify with this term, which is capitalised), or person who is deaf (non-NZSL users)

People with disabilities Disabled people
Disclosing a disability Telling people about a disability
Disorder Condition
Epileptic Person who has epilepsy
Handicapped parking

Accessible parking

Help (this suggests a weakness)


For example, ‘the support worker can support you with your cooking’.

Hidden impairment Invisible impairment
Lame Person with a mobility impairment
Mentally retarded, retard, slow Person with a learning disability, or people with cognitive difficulties, or person with a neurological condition


People with dwarfism, or little people, or people of short stature

Normal, able-bodied

Person without a disability, or non-disabled people

Sighted person, or hearing person, or neurotypical person (for people who are not blind, or deaf, or who do not have cognitive difficulties)

Schizophrenic Person who has schizophrenia
Spastic Person who has muscle spasms
Special needs

Particular requirements, diverse needs

For example, person with particular requirements, or people with diverse needs

Symptoms [of a condition] The effects [of a condition]
Visual impairment, people who are visually impaired (this can be interpreted as indicating someone who looks visually disfigured or diminished in some way) Vision impairment, or people with vision impairments
Wheelchair bound, confined to a wheelchair Someone who uses a wheelchair, or wheelchair user


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