Glossary of Terms and Preferred Language

In this guide, you’ll find widely accepted definitions for disability-related terms, as well as current language used to identify people with disabilities.

Many phrases that might be thought of as inappropriate are perfectly acceptable, however. People who use wheelchairs do “go for walks.” It is perfectly acceptable to say to a person with a visual disability, “See you later,” or to a Deaf person, “Did you hear about…” Common, everyday phrases of this kind are unlikely to cause offense.

Because we understand that language is fluid and changes over time, this document is not meant to be a definitive or absolute source book. As society continues to evolve in its thinking about disability, so too does the terminology used to describe those who inhabit it. We are committed to ensuring that the glossary continues to grow and change to reflect the most current attitudes and beliefs of people of all abilities as well as the society in which we live.

Glossary of Terms and Preferred Language

Accessibility: Barriers to accessibility can be physical, sensory, or cognitive. A barrier-free environment is one that can be accessed by people of all abilities, regardless of physical, sensory, or cognitive limitation. Accessibility encompasses architectural design, computer usage, communication devices, and Internet access. In the entertainment arena, accessibility also refers to providing services such as audio description, captioning, and sign-interpreted performances. In the broader sense, accessibility in the entertainment industry also means that people of all abilities, disabled and nondisabled, are represented accurately and fully throughout the industry and can identify with what they see on stage, screen, and TV.

American Sign Language (ASL): Used by individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing, as well as those with who do not/cannot speak or have speech disabilities, ASL is a language distinct from spoken English with its own syntax and grammar and supporting its own culture. American Sign Language (ASL) is a complex visual-spatial language that is used by the Deaf community in the United States and English-speaking parts of Canada. It is a linguistically complete, natural language. It is the native language of many Deaf men and women, as well as some hearing children born into Deaf families.

ASL shares no grammatical similarities to English and should not be considered in any way to be a broken, mimed, or gestural form of English.

Some people have described ASL and other sign languages as “gestural” languages. This is not absolutely correct because hand gestures are only one component of ASL. Facial features such as eyebrow motion and lip-mouth movements are also significant in ASL as they form a crucial part of the grammatical system. In addition, ASL makes use of the space surrounding the signer to describe places and persons that are not present.

Asperger’s syndrome: A milder form of autism that is characterized by an impairment in communication skills and social abilities, and also by repetitive behaviors.

Assistance dog: A dog that is specially trained to help a person with a disability. The three types of assistance dogs are guide dogs for individuals who are blind or have low vision, hearing dogs for the Deaf and hard of hearing, and service dogs for people with mobility disabilities.

Assistive Technology (AT): AT means any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off-the-shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of a person with a disability. a generic term that includes assistive, adaptive, and rehabilitative devices and the process used in selecting, locating, and using them. Examples of assistive technology include: screen readers, screen magnifiers, TTY devices, powerchairs, and mobility scooters.

Augmentative or Alternative Communication (AAC): Electronic and non-electronic devices that provide a means for expressive and receptive communication for persons with limited or no speech. Equipment includes: input and output devices (voice, Braille), alternate access aids (headsticks, light pointers), modified or alternate keyboards, switches, special software, etc. that enable persons with disabilities to use a computer. This category includes speech recognition software.

Autism: A complex neurobiological disorder that typically lasts throughout a person’s lifetime. It is part of a group of disorders known as Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). It occurs in all racial, ethnic, and social groups and is four times more likely to strike boys than girls. Autism impairs a person’s ability to communicate and relate to others. It is also associated with rigid routines and repetitive behaviors, such as obsessively arranging objects or following very specific routines. Symptoms can range from very mild to quite severe.

Autism spectrum disorders: A series of disorders on the autism spectrum. The disorders are characterized by a severe restriction of: 1)the ability to interact reciprocally in social situations; 2) the ability to communicate reciprocally; and 3) rigid and restricted behavioral repertoire and imaginative skills. The five developmental disorders that fall under the umbrella of ASD are: autism, Asperger’s syndrome, Rett syndrome, PDD NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder), and Childhood Disintegrative Disorder.

autism spectrum disorder—preferred
Person with autism/has autism—preferred (should not be used as a noun, e.g., He is autistic.)
autism—acceptable but not preferred
pervasive developmental disorders (PDD)—still used but not preferred

Blind: Vision that ranges from perceiving light to a total lack of sight.

Braille: A code that enables blind persons to read and write. Invented by Louis Braille in 1829. Braille is comprised of a rectangular six-dot cell on its end, with up to 63 possible combinations using one or more of the six dots. Braille is embossed by hand (or with a machine) onto thick paper, and read with the fingers moving across on top of the dots.

Cerebral palsy (CP): A group of permanent, nonprogressive disorders associated with developmental brain injuries that occur during fetal development, birth, or shortly after birth. The degree to which cerebral palsy affects each person’s motor functioning can vary greatly. Some persons with cerebral palsy may have difficulty walking and their movements may be jerky, exaggerated, and poorly coordinated. Other persons with cerebral palsy may be affected to only a mild degree with decreased motor skills that are much less outwardly apparent.

Congenital amputee: A condition whereby a person is born without one or more limbs. Usually hereditary.

Cognitive disability: Can be the same as an intellectual disability but can also refer to an illness that may affect someone’s capacity to reason or comprehend. Cognitive disabilities can range from milder forms, such as dyslexia and ADHD, to more profound disabilities, including brain injuries such as a stroke, and genetic diseases such as Down syndrome, mental retardation, and autism spectrum disorder.

Deaf: unable to hear
deaf—preferred (or Deaf—see Deaf/Deaf culture)
deaf and dumb—not acceptable
dumb—not acceptable
deaf-mute—not acceptable

Deaf/Deaf culture: The community of deaf people who use American Sign Language as a primary means of communication. Also known as Deaf culture. Only persons who are self-identified as belonging to Deaf culture are appropriately referred to as Deaf (using the capital D).

Developmental disability: A diverse group of chronic conditions due to mental and/or physical impairments. People with developmental disabilities have difficulty performing skills that may include language, mobility, learning, and/or independent living. Developmental disabilities begin anytime during development up to 22 years of age and usually last throughout a person’s lifetime. Developmental disabilities include, but are not limited to: cerebral palsy, autism spectrum disorders, intellectual disabilities, and ADHD.

Disability: taken from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act)

  1. A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities
  2. A person with a history of a disability or impairment
  3. A person regarded or perceived as being disabled

Down syndrome: A person with Down syndrome was born with an extra copy of the 21st chromosome, also called “Trisomy 21.” This additional chromosome carries an extra set of genes that interact with other genes causing various physical and cognitive differences. The syndrome is named after Dr. Langdon Down, who is believed to have first identified the characteristics.

person with Down syndrome—preferred
mongoloid—not acceptable

Dwarfism: Is typically, at adult height, 4’10” or shorter. Their short stature is generally caused by one of the more than 200 medical conditions known as dwarfism. Dwarfs or other people of short statue (either proportionate or disproportionate) come from all walks of life and ethnic backgrounds. Most people with dwarfism are born to average-size parents with no history of dwarfism in the family. Although some types of dwarfism may have associated medical complications, most short-statured individuals have a normal life span and normal intelligence.

little person—preferred
person of short stature—acceptable
dwarf—acceptable in certain circumstances
midget—not acceptable

Dyslexia: A cognitive disability in which a person’s reading and/or writing ability is significantly lower than that which would be predicted by his or her general level of intelligence.

Forearm crutches: used by people with permanent mobility disabilities and designed for long-term use; aluminum with orthopedic handles and forearm cuffs.

forearm crutches—acceptable
lofstrand crutches—acceptable
Canadian crutches—acceptable
sticks—not acceptable
canes—not acceptable

Guide dog: Guide dogs, or seeing eye dogs, are assistance dogs especially trained to aid people with visual disabilities. Many blind performers choose to use guide dogs as their primary means of mobility. Guide dogs and other service animals undergo extensive training to perform their duties. These working animals are an extension of an individual’s personal space and as such are keenly attuned and sensitive to their handler’s environment. The ADA allows “service animals” to accompany their handlers.

Hard of hearing: A hearing loss, whether permanent or fluctuating, which adversely affects and individual’s ability to detect and decipher some sounds.

hard of hearing—preferred
hearing-impaired—not acceptable

Hearing dog: A category of assistance dogs that are especially selected and trained to assist people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Hearing dogs allow their handlers to become aware of important sounds such as doorbells, smoke alarms, passing traffic, a ringing telephone, or an alarm clock. They also can work outside the home as 24/7 hearing dogs and alert to sounds such as sirens, fire alarms, fork lifts, people coming up behind someone quickly, name call, and other sounds.

hearing dog—preferred
sound alert dog—acceptable
hearing assist dog—acceptable
signal dog—not acceptable

Intellectual disability: Characterized as an individual’s ability to reason and/or learn; are considered lifelong disabilities. An individual is considered to have an intellectual disability when: (1) the person’s intellectual functioning level (IQ) is below 70–75; (2) the person has significant limitations in adaptive skill areas as expressed in conceptual, social, and practical adaptive skills; and (3) the disability originated before the age of 18. (4) “Adaptive skill areas” refers to basic skills needed for everyday life. Intellectual disabilities will vary in degree and effect from person to person, just as individual capabilities vary considerably among people who do not have an intellectual disability.(5) People should not make generalizations about the needs of persons with intellectual disabilities. In some instances an intellectual disability will not be obvious from a person’s appearance, nor will it be accompanied by a physical disability. Intellectual disabilities include, but are not limited to: Down syndrome, ADHD.

intellectual disability—preferred
cognitive disability—acceptable
developmental disability—used but not all DD’s are intellectual disabilities
mentally retarded—used but not preferred
individuals with special needs—not preferred
cognitively impaired—not acceptable
mentally impaired—not acceptable
mentally challenged—not acceptable

Learning Disability (LD): A neurological disorder that affects the brain’s ability to receive, process, store and respond to information. The term learning disability is used to describe the seeming unexplained difficulty a person of at least average intelligence has in acquiring basic academic skills, including reading ability, reading comprehension, written expression, mathematical reasoning, mathematical calculation, listening comprehension, and/or oral expression. Learning disabilities include, but are not limited to: ADHD, dyslexia, TK. Generally, the adult performer has become skilled in utilizing coping mechanisms. However, there may be times when a performer with an intellectual disability may require a reasonable accommodation, such as providing a script on audio cassette prior to rehearsals/shooting.

Legally blind: Defined as vision of 20/200 (6/60) or less in the better eye with correction (web definition) or a visual field of 20 degrees or less.

Lip-reading: The ability to gain understanding of what is being said by watching the lips as well as by watching the face, expressions, and gestures. The term speech reading is now recognized as more descriptive because it includes watching the facial expressions, gestures, and body language as well as the lips.

Little person: A medical or genetic condition that usually results in an adult height of 4’10″ or shorter.

little person—preferred
person of short stature—acceptable
dwarf—acceptable in certain circumstances
midget—not acceptable

Low vision: Vision loss that may be severe enough to impede a person’s ability to carry on everyday activities, but still allows some functionally useful sight. Low vision may range from moderate impairment to near-total blindness. It cannot be fully corrected by eyeglasses, contact lenses, or surgery. Sight typically ranges from 20/200 to 20/70 with correction. Most people who fall into this category can use their considerable residual vision—their remaining sight—to complete daily tasks without relying on alternative methods. This residual vision may be augmented through the use of optical devices such as magnifying glasses and monoculars.

Manual wheelchair (a.k.a. self-propelled): Device used for mobility by people for whom walking is difficult or impossible moves with the use of the rider’s hands on the wheel or pushed by another person from behind.

Mobility disability: A condition limiting physical ability; generally considered to include lack of or decreased movement due to disease, amputation, paralysis, injury, or developmental condition; or limitation of movement due to cardiovascular or other disease. Mobility disabilities include: cerebral palsy, spina bifida, or spinal cord injury. These conditions can range in severity from limitations of stamina to total paralysis. Muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis are examples of progressive diseases. There is a high degree of variability within these conditions and periods of remission may occur.

disabled—preferred (should be used as an adjective (as in “disabled person”), not a noun; as in “He is disabled.”)
person with a disability—preferred

wheelchair user—preferred

handicapped—used but not preferred
physically challenged—used but not preferred
crippled—not acceptable
normal—not acceptable
regular—not acceptable
special needs—not acceptable
on a wheelchair—not acceptable
wheelchair-bound—not acceptable
“suffers from”—not acceptable
“afflicted with”—not acceptable
“confined to”—not acceptable

Multiple sclerosis: A neurological condition that affects the central nervous system. Symptoms are unpredictable and vary across persons but may include: dizziness, double vision, slurring words, spasticity, or weakness in the arms or legs, loss of coordination, numbness, loss of balance, extreme tiredness, difficulty swallowing, adverse reactions to extreme heat, or memory lapses.

Muscular dystrophy: A group of inherited diseases marked by progressive atrophy of the body’s muscles. Some cases may be mild and progress slowly with a normal lifespan, while other cases may have more marked progression. Muscular dystrophy is often fatal. The degree of functioning a person has depends upon which muscles are affected.

Mute: Unable to speak

does not/cannot speak—preferred
mute—Although the term is still used, it is generally not preferred.
dumb—not acceptable
deaf-mute—not acceptable

Orthotics: Equipment that is used on the body to aid those with mobility disabilities. These include such devices as braces and splints.

Paraplegia: paralysis of the lower portion of the body and both legs. It is usually the result of spinal cord injury or a congenital condition such as spina bifida, but polyneuropathy may also result in paraplegia.The degree of movement in the trunk and chest depends on the height of the injury on the spinal column.

Person with paraplegia—preferred
paraplegic—used but not preferred (Correct: He has paraplegia. Incorrect: He is paraplegic.)

Powerchair: Commonly used term for a motorized wheelchair.

power chair—acceptable
electric wheelchair—acceptable

Prosthesis: An artificial extension that replaces a missing part of the body. Prostheses are typically used to replace parts lost by injury (traumatic) or missing from birth (congenital), supplement defective parts. Examples include: artificial limbs, corrective lenses. Prosthestic devices are often used in the entertainment industry to alter facial and/or body features.

PWD: Commonly used acronym in the arts community to mean “performer with a disability.” It is also used among those in the disability community-at-large and stands for “people with disabilities.”

Quadriplegia: Quadriplegia occurs when all four limbs are affected by a spinal cord injury. The arms may be fully or partially paralyzed. A series of letters and numbers are used to describe the location of the spinal cord injury. These terms also communicate information about the degree of functionality. For example, a person with a C1 to C3 injury typically will have limited movement of his/her head and neck, depend on a ventilator for breathing, and may require assistive technology to communicate.

Person with quadriplegia—preferred
quadriplegic—used but not preferred (Correct: He has quadriplegia. Incorrect: He is a quadriplegic.)

Reasonable accommodations: Making existing facilities used by employees readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities. Such accommodation can include: acquisition or modification of equipment or devices, such as building ramps, railing, accessible restrooms, providing materials in alternate formats, etc.

Job restructuring, part-time or modified work schedules, reassignment to a vacant position, appropriate adjustment or modifications of examinations, training materials or policies, the provision of qualified readers or interpreters, and other similar accommodations for individuals with disabilities.

Screen magnifier: Software that interfaces with a computer’s graphical output to present enlarged screen content. It is a type of assistive technology suitable for individuals with some functional vision. Those with no functional vision usually use a screen reader.

Screen reader: A software application that identifies and interprets what is being displayed on the screen. This is then presented to a blind user as speech (by text-to-speech) or a Braille display. Screen readers are used by people with little or no functional vision: people with some vision often use screen magnifiers.

Scooter (a.k.a. cart, electric scooter, mobility scooter): Used to help disabled individuals gain mobility, are small electric-powered vehicles. They usually incorporate an upholstered seat, a tiller for steering, and thumb-controlled throttle levers to control speed.

mobility scooter—preferred
electric scooter—acceptable

Service dog: A type of assistance dog, is a dog that is specially trained to help people with mobility disabilities with everyday tasks.

Sign language interpreter: A person trained in translating between a spoken and a signed language. This usually means someone who interprets what is being said and signs it for someone who is deaf, but understands sign. Of course, the interpreter also will interpret and speak the words that convey the meaning of whatever the signing person signs so hearing people can “hear” what is signed. Since ASL (American Sign Language) is a completely different language from English; it cannot be translated “word for word”, so it requires considerable skill to be a sign language interpreter.

Spina bifida: Means cleft spine, which is a congenital incomplete closure in the spinal column. As a result, a portion of the spinal cord and the nerves that normally control muscles and feeling in the lower part of the body fail to develop normally. The three types of spina bifida (from mild to severe) are:

  1. Spina Bifida Occulta: There is an opening in one or more of the vertebrae (bones) of the spinal column without apparent damage to the spinal cord
  2. Meningocele: The meninges, or protective covering around the spinal cord, has pushed out through the opening in the vertebrae in a sac called the “meningocele.” However, the spinal cord remains intact. This form can be repaired with little or no damage to the nerve pathways
  3. Myelomeningocele: This is the most severe form of spina bifida, in which a portion of the spinal cord itself protrudes through the back. In some cases, sacs are covered with skin; in others, tissue and nerves are exposed. Generally, people use the terms “spina bifida” and “myelomeningocele” interchangeably

The effects of myelomeningocele, the most serious form of spina bifida, may include muscle weakness or paralysis below the area of the spine where the incomplete closure (or cleft) occurs, loss of sensation below the cleft, and loss of bowel and bladder control

Telecommunications relay service: (TRS, Relay Service, IP-Relay) is an operator service that allows deaf, hard of hearing and speech disabled persons to place calls to standard telephone users via TTY, personal computer, or video.

TTY: A telecommunications device for the Deaf (TDD) is an electronic device used for telephone communications by the Deaf and hard of hearing. The deaf community prefers to use the term “TTY.”


Tics: Involuntary, rapid, sudden movements, or vocalizations that occur repeatedly in the same way.

Tourette syndrome: A neurological or neurochemical disorder characterized by tics: involuntary, rapid, sudden movements or vocalizations that occur repeatedly in the same way. Symptoms may include multiple motor and one or more vocal tics. The term “involuntary” used to describe TS tics is a source of confusion since it is known that most people with TS do have some control over the symptoms. Before tic onset, individuals with TS experience what is called a “premonitory urge,” similar to the feeling that precedes yawning. What is recognized is that the control that can be exerted from seconds to hours at a time may merely postpone and exacerbate outbursts of symptoms. Tics are experienced as irresistible as a yawn and must eventually be expressed. People with TS often seek a secluded spot to release their symptoms after delaying them in school or at work. Typically, tics increase as a result of tension or stress (but are not caused by stress) and decrease with relaxation or concentration on an absorbing task.

Visual disability: Visual acuity of 20/70 or less in the better eye with best correction, or a visual field of 140 degrees or less in the better eye.

visual disability—preferred
low vision—preferred
visually impaired—considered acceptable in certain circumstances

Voicing: Refers to the act of speaking in relation to deaf performers. The ability and/or preference to use the voice to communicate differs with individual performers.

White cane: Mobility tool used by a person with a visual disability to feel obstacles in his/her path. Cane length depends upon the height of the user, and traditionally extends from the floor to the user’s sternum.

A project of Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts

2 Responses to “Glossary of Terms and Preferred Language”

  1. Julie says:

    I can’t speak, but my hearing is fine. I’m perfectly fine with the term “mute”. In fact, it’s part of my email address. It’s a lot better than “speech disabled” or the horribly irritating “non-verbal”. No… my friend’s baby is non-verbal, I’m just plain mute.

  2. […] Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts list of preferred terms. Keep in mind that any one person’s preferred term is another’s least favorite. When in doubt, ask. […]

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