Ableist Language to Avoid
Disclaimer: We did not write this guide with the intention to police people’s language. However, we feel strongly about bringing attention to how language can oppress and discriminate people with disabilities.
We would also like to emphasise that dismantling ableism is more than just changing the language we use. It requires us to challenge inequalities and injustices against disabled people that exist in the society and systems of power.
We encourage you to refer to Lydia X. Z. Brown’s comprehensive list of ableist terms in English (which we have largely referred to and excerpted from to put this page together). The list included suggestions of alternative words/phrases that are non-ableist.
The National Center on Disability and Journalism also periodically revises their comprehensive Disability Language Style Guide. The guide covers commonly used words that are related to disability, and includes both ableist and non-ableist terms.
Disability Isn’t a Bad Word by Victoria Mejicanos
Doing Social Justice: Thoughts on Ableist Language and Why It Matters by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg
Ableism Is Embedded In Our Language. We Can Dismantle It by Emerson Malone
The harmful ableist language you unknowingly use by Sara Nović
Why You Need to Stop Using These Words and Phrases by Rakshitha Arni Ravishankar
Promoting Inclusive Communication by Unlearning Ableist Language by Star Bright Books
Common Ableist Words to Stop Using
In this section, we highlight some disability terminologies that are commonly used in Malaysia which are ableist. The list below also includes ableist terminologies in Bahasa Malaysia (BM). The terms are arranged in an alphabetical order in English.
Majority of the terminologies, their corresponding explanations, and suggestions of alternative words featured on this page are excerpted or adapted from the following sources:
- Glossary of Ableist Phrases (web archive page) by Lydia X. Z. Brown’s, and
- Disability Language Style Guide by National Center on Disability and Journalism
This document will be updated and expanded from time to time, especially to include terminologies from our Malaysian context.
Persons with disabilities are welcome to contact us (email: firstname.lastname@example.org) to add to this list, especially Bahasa Malaysia terminologies.
When the word is used as a substitute for “self-centered” or “lacking empathy”, it is especially ableist. It is not ableist if it is used to refer to someone who is actually autistic. (Lydia X.Z. Brown)
This is a preferred term by the autistic community to refer to autistic persons. However, some individuals may prefer the terminology “person with autism” and it is best to ask the person which they prefer.
Use instead: selfish, self-centered, lacks empathy, callous, narrow-minded, single-track mind, hyper-focused
Blind spot / blind to ___ / blinded by ___
Often used as a metaphor to describe careless, ignorant, or harmful actions in the context of sighted persons.
Use instead: unconscious bias, unaware, wilfully ignorant, deliberately ignoring, turn their back on, feigned ignorance
Crazy / insane / mad / psycho / deranged / nuts
Once commonly used to refer to people with mental illness or psychiatric disabilities. These terms are now considered demeaning. They are also commonly used in other contexts as metaphors.
Read more about why the word crazy is ableist from the perspective of a person with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
- Avoid referring to the person’s mental illness or psychiatric disabilities unless the information is relevant to the context.
- If it is necessary, use “person with a mental illness / psychiatric disability”. If the person has a formal diagnosis, use the appropriate terminology.
- As metaphor: wild, intense, confusing, illogical, unpredictable, impulsive, reckless, out of control, fearless, thrill-seeker, risk-taker
Cripple / Crippled by
An offensive reference to people with physical or mobility disabilities when it is used by people without physical disabilities. Often used as a metaphor.
Recently, some disability activists reclaimed and embraced the word “crip”, e.g., Crip Camp, #cripthevote (National Center on Disability and Journalism).
It is acceptable to use “cripple” when referencing the “crip” movement or if it is used in a direct quote. In general, avoid using the term as a noun or verb, especially in contexts that are not disability-related (National Center on Disability and Journalism).
- To refer to a person with a disability: person with physical disability, physically disabled person, paralysed person, wheelchair-user (if the person uses a wheelchair)
- As metaphor: frozen still, stopped by, operations halted completely
Deaf and dumb / deaf-mute
“Dumb” originally meant unable to speak. It was only later that “dumb” was used to mean stupid, unintellectual, and pointless.
“Mute” means silent or unable to speak. Deaf and Hard of Hearing people are not “silent”. They communicate in other ways, through sign-language, lip-reading, typing, and writing.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing individuals have functional vocal chords. However, to successfully vocalise, they need to be able to hear their own voice (National Association of the Deaf, USA).
Use instead: Deaf person, Hard of Hearing person, Deaf and Hard of Hearing people
Demented / senile / senility
Often used incorrectly to refer to people with and without dementia, especially people with memory loss and declining cognitive abilities. Also used metaphorically to describe harmful opinions or actions of an elderly person without dementia, which is often insulting.
Dementia is an umbrella term for progressive degenerative brain syndromes which affect memory, problem-solving, language, and other thinking abilities that affect a person’s daily living. (Alzheimer’s Association)
- To describe a person, only when relevant to the context: person with dementia / person living with dementia (only if the person has a confirmed diagnosis), forgetful, absent-minded
- As metaphor: uninformed opinion, illogical, ignorant, insensitive
Additional resources on respectful language for Dementia:
- Dementia words matter: Guidelines on language about Dementia by The Dementia Engagement and Empowerment Project (DEEP), UK
- Dementia Language Guidelines by Dementia Australia
Different-abilities / Differently-abled / Diffability
[BM: kelainan upaya]
Used as substitute to avoid saying “disability” or “disabled”. Disability community prefers the term disability.
Read more about why we should not use the term “differently-abled”:
- How “Differently Abled” Marginalises Disabled People by Lydia X.Z. Brown
- Don’t Call Disabled People ‘Differently Abled’ by Carly Fox
- To describe a person: disabled person, person with a disability [BM: orang kurang upaya]
- Read more about person-first vs identity-first language
- To refer to identity or social group: disability, persons with disabilities, non-disabled people [BM: ketidakupayaan, golongan kurang upaya, golongan tanpa ketidakupayaan]
Handicap / handicapped
Refers to people with physical or mobility disabilities, and is usually used as substitute to avoid saying “disability” or “disabled.”
Also used in the context of accessible infrastructures/facilities for persons with disabilities, e.g., “handicapped parking”.
- To describe a person: disabled person, physically disabled person, wheelchair-user, person with a disability [BM: orang kurang upaya, orang kurang upaya fizikal / orang berketidakupayaan fizikal, pengguna kerusi roda]
- To refer to infrastructures: accessible parking/toilet, disability-accessible parking/toilet [BM: tempat letak kereta bolehakses, tandas bolehakses]
Hearing impaired / hearing impairment
Refers to persons with partial or complete hearing loss. “Hearing impaired” implies that “hearing” is the standard/norm, and anything different from that is “impaired,” or substandard (National Association of the Deaf, USA).
- To refer to social group: Deaf or Hard of Hearing
- To refer to a person (ask the person which term they prefer): Hard of Hearing, partially deaf, person with hearing loss
High/Low Functioning, level __ autism, mild/severe ___
Refers to perceived ability of disabled people to look “normal” and less disabled. Often used to describe autistic people, individuals with developmental disabilities, intellectual disabilities, multiple complex disabilities, psychosocial disabilities (mental illness).
Functioning labels are inaccurate and subjective. Every person’s ability to function varies depending on the situation, their mood, their stress level, the amount of sleep they had, etc. — regardless of whether the person has a disability or not. What is more accurate is the specific support that the person needs.
“High-functioning” ignores the ways in which people need support, ignores the challenges/struggles they have, or experience distress (Lydia X. Z. Brown, 2021). It can result in people not receiving the support they need in their daily lives.
“Low-functioning” ignores individuals’ personhood and capabilities (Lydia X. Z. Brown, 2021). It can result in others undermining their decision-making ability, and being less willing to help people with disabilities achieve more.
- Describe the specific support a person needs, e.g., “needs help with toileting and bathing”, “needs help with budgeting”, “needs help with keeping time”.
- Describe the specific characteristics of a person that are relevant to a particular context, e.g., “can communicate with the support of communication partner and AAC” or “is able to work”, “reads using a screen reader”.
Mongoloid / has Down’s / is a Down
Incorrect terms to refer to persons with Down syndrome. Refer to this preferred language guide when describing persons with Down syndrome by the Down Syndrome Resource Foundation, USA.
Use instead: person with Down syndrome
Incorrect term to describe people who are nonspeaking, minimally speaking, unreliably speaking, or those who use alternative forms of communication. Non-verbal in latin means without words.
Persons who do not speak or do not have reliable speech have words and can understand words, even though the way they communicate words are in alternative forms other than speaking.
Use instead: nonspeaker, AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) user, minimally speaking person, person with unreliable speech.
Retard / retarded / mentally retarded / mental retardation
[BM: cacat akal]
Outdated and offensive terms to refer to people with intellectual disabilities. Also used in degrading ways to describe actions, words and perspectives of a person, whether disabled or non-disabled.
The Disability Language Style Guide by the National Center on Disability and Journalism includes a brief background on the usage of the term “mentally retarded“.
- To describe a person with intellectual disability: person with intellectual disability [BM: orang berketidakupayaan intelektual]
- To describe a person with Down Syndrome: person with Down Syndrome [BM: orang Down Syndrome, kanak-kanak Down Syndrome]
- To describe actions / words / thoughts of someone without intellectual disability: uninformed, ignorant, reckless, narrow-minded, despicable
[BM: keperluan khas]
Commonly used to refer to individuals with learning disabilities, intellectual disabilities (cognitive disabilities) or developmental disabilities. Used as substitute to avoid saying “disability” or “disabled”.
Implying that disability needs are special further stigmatises persons with disabilities. The needs of a person with a disability are human needs that every person has.
“Special” is also found to be used by students as slurs to insult their peers if the peer does not seem similar to the mainstream group, regardless if the peer has a disability or not.
The Malaysian education system uses the term “students with special needs” (Murid Berkeperluan Khas – MBK) for all students with disabilities, including physical disabilities, Blind or visually impaired, Deaf or Hard of Hearing, developmental disabilities, learning disabilities, etc.
Read more about why we should avoid the term “special needs”:
- Why We Say ‘Disability,’ Not ‘Special Needs’ – The Mighty Explains
- ‘I am not ashamed’: Disability advocates, experts implore you to stop saying ‘special needs’
- Video: Not Special Needs
Use instead: person with a disability, disabled person, students with disabilities [BM: orang kurang upaya (OKU), murid OKU, murid berketidakupayaan]
Stupid / Idiot / Moron
Outdated terms to refer to people with intellectual disabilities. Are ableist slurs.
Commonly used to express frustration, anger, or disappointment towards bad or problematic actions. Associating harmful actions with lack of intelligence undermines real accountability, and does not address the causes of those actions (Mihran Nersesyan, 2018).
Also, people with intellectual disabilities are capable of making their own decisions, differentiating between right or wrong, being caring, and many more. Suggesting that they are not so is harmful and oppressive towards people with intellectual disabilities.
- To refer to a person with intellectual disability: person with intellectual disability, has an intellectual disability
- To refer to harmful actions: uninformed, ignorant, careless, indifferent, narrow-minded, close-minded, biased, hatred, greed, bigoted, hypocrite
Suffers from / victim of / afflicted with / stricken with
Often used to refer to any person with a disability. “Often ableist because it assumes that being disabled always means suffering, when that is frequently not true.” (Lydia X.Z. Brown, 2021)
This is not ableist when someone personally chooses the description. It is also not ableist if it is used to describe a specific unwanted and painful experience that is universal, such as having seizures or chronic pain (Lydia X.Z. Brown, 2021).
Use instead: neutral language to describe a person with disability and avoid negative characterisations of their disability conditions, e.g., has a disability, has muscular dystrophy, has polio, is a person with Cerebral Palsy / Down Syndrome / intellectual disability, is an autistic person, etc.
Commonly used as a negative description of a person’s inability to appreciate or understand the opinions of others, especially the challenges or difficulties faced by others.
Linking deafness with ignorance or insensitivity is harmful to the deaf community (Erica Mones, 2021).
Use instead: ignorant, insensitive, out of touch with reality
Wheelchair-bound / confined to a wheelchair
Often used to refer to persons with physical or mobility disability who uses a wheelchair.
The term is ableist because using wheelchairs and other mobility aids enables freedom of movement to people who use these equipment. Mobility aid users also consider canes, scooter, wheelchair, walking frame, etc. as part of their personal space, and not something that restricts them or confines them.
Use instead: wheelchair-user, needs or requires a wheelchair, is a full-time wheelchair-user, is a part-time wheelchair-user