Inclusive Language Guide

Learn how you can be more inclusive and respectful in your language with common do's and don'ts as well as alternative phrases for teaching.

Inclusive Language Guide
  • Getting Started
  • Liberated Learning Environments

Inclusive Language Guide

Words matter. Consider the way you are speaking to and about students regarding all aspects of their identities. Identity traits can be visible or nonvisible. Insensitive or outdated word choices can reinforce stereotypes; stereotypes can perpetuate oppressive systems, negative connotations and create barriers. The goal of this guide is to provide you with tools to be inclusive and respectful in your language by putting the whole person at the center of your word choice.


Language is subjective, constantly changing, and can be non-verbal. When interacting with an individual who has a disability, always default to what that individual prefers, even if that conflicts with what you think to be the “correct” language and note how your tone or inflection might be perceived.


To feature art by artists of all abilities as masterworks in your residencies. You can find a variety of artists below or in the Inclusive Curriculum Guide.


Avoid language that assumes an individual with a disability is having a negative experience (i.e. victim, challenged, problem, suffers, etc.). Avoid language that sensationalizes an individual with a disability (i.e. superhuman, courageous, brave, inspiration, etc.).

Promising Practices for Inclusive Language

It can be challenging to talk about language as it is very subjective, dynamic, and ever-evolving. This guide may conflict with terminology used by individuals, schools, organizations, and institutions with which you work. Often structural institutions and systems struggle to shift their language to keep up to speed with how language is changing. The guide below was made in a moment in time, and the most promising practice is to keep current with language as it changes.

Language is Not Monolithic

  • Using person-first language is a good place to begin when referring to individuals or groups of individuals with disabilities. Instead of “disabled student”, say “student with a disability”. This puts the focus on the individual over their diagnosis. 
  • Start by using person-first language, then check in with individuals about how they would like to be identified.
  • Self-advocates and individuals with disabilities may disagree or have different preferences than what is listed here. 

…Neither identity-first nor people-first language approaches should be applied broadly. There are some communities that strongly prefer people-first language. Those with intellectual disabilities usually prefer people-first language, and there are advocacy groups mainly run by and for people with intellectual disabilities around the globe called People First that date back to the 1970s. Conversely, the Autistic and Deaf communities both strongly prefer identity-first language for reasons that I’ve outlined above, as well as from a sense of disability pride.” Cara Liebowitz 

  • There is no one correct way to name or describe another person’s experience of living with a disability. An individual’s identity preferences should be prioritized over generic terms. We encourage you to have conversations with your students to learn and then use their preferred identifier(s) when appropriate. 
  • No individual is only their diagnosis. So, unless there is a specific need for someone’s disability to be mentioned, focus on the student as an individual.

We are all on a learning journey! It can take time to adjust your language and thinking in a way that feels authentic to you. If you make a mistake and an individual corrects you, apologize, adjust and move on. Don’t fixate as that can draw more attention and make things worse.

Preferred Language Dos & Don’ts

Person with a disabilityDisabled Person
WHY: There is great debate over whether to use person-first language (e.g. person with autism) vs. identity-first language (e.g. autistic person). The current best practice is to acknowledge the person before their disability, but always go with what the person prefers. Choosing Words for Talking About Disability
Wheelchair user, person with a physical disability, person who uses a wheelchairHandicapped or wheelchair-bound, crippled, deformed, lame
WHY: The word handicapped is now often replaced with the word accessible. By definition, the word handicap refers to a barrier that makes progress difficult. For individuals with disabilities, an environment or circumstance may be a barrier or limiting. The individual themself is not a barrier. In a similar vein, the word wheelchair-bound insinuates that a person is restricted or limited by their wheelchair when often they can access and experience more because of a wheelchair. Crippled, deformed, and lame are disrespectful and offensive in nature.
Low vision, vision loss, blindVision impaired
WHY: While "vision impaired" was once considered acceptable, it has since been phased out. Impairment focuses on the negative, on what an individual can’t do, and insinuates that an individual needs fixing. Many official resources still use the term impairment, but it is generally not preferred.
Lauren "Lolo" Spencer talks about funny and ridiculous things that able-bodied people say with reference to her disability.
Hard of hearing, hearing loss, deaf or DeafHearing impaired
WHY: Use a lowercase “d” in the word deaf when referring to the condition of not hearing or hearing less. Use an uppercase “D” in the word Deaf when referring to a community identity, or culture of people. National Association of the Deaf on this Distinction.
ASC (Autism Spectrum Condition) or autismAsperger’s
WHY: Autism is a spectrum condition and when written can be referred to as ASC or autism. Asperger’s is capitalized as it is the name of a person. Asperger’s syndrome is no longer diagnosed, as all current diagnoses are currently seen as part of the autism spectrum. However, some individuals may still identify as having Asperger’s.
Little personMidget
WHY: The word, "midget" was never formally or clinically used in association with dwarfism. Instead, it was an adopted cultural label used to refer to people who were short in stature and on display for sport. Individuals with dwarfism advocate that the word midget is derogatory. Little People of America's statement to abolish the "m" word.
Developmental disability, intellectual disability, cognitive disabilityRetarded
WHY: The word, "retarded" is often used negatively in our culture and is rarely used to describe an individual with a disability. The term mental retardation has also been phased out of diagnoses. When is it OK to say the 'R' word? a video featuring members of CO/LAB Theater Group
High support, Low support
Low functioning, High functioning
WHY: How a person functions is multifaceted. For example, one person might function "highly" in one area of their life but not another. Therefore, to make a blanket statement that an individual is high or low functioning is not specific and doesn’t account for many aspects of a person’s life. Therefore, refer to a person’s support needs instead.
Disability, person with a disabilityThe disabled, Difference, Special
WHY: Disability is nuanced and varied; to refer to an entire people as "the disabled" is to generalize. Self-advocates urge for recognition of the word disability as opposed to replacing it with other words with alternate meanings and connotations, like "special or different:" Not Special Needs Video.

Phrases to Consider for Instruction

Consider how subtle shifts in language can make your instruction more inclusive. While we have specified some phrases for specific groups, use with all audiences will make your instruction generally more inclusive.


When introducing a modification for an activity, consider…

  • “Another option is ___” instead of “If you can’t do ___” 

For individuals who have experienced/are experiencing trauma or anxiety, consider…

  • “Keep your eyes open, closed, or whatever is most comfortable” instead of “close your eyes for the meditation”

For individuals who are non-verbal, consider…

  • “Share” instead of “talk, discuss, explain”

For individuals who use a wheelchair, consider…

  • “Rise” instead of “stand”
  • “Move” instead of “walk”

For individuals who are d/Deaf or hard of hearing, consider…

  • “Experience” instead of “listen or hear”

For individuals who are blind or individuals with low vision, consider…

  • “Experience” instead of “watch or see”

External Resources