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This is something that gets confusing really fast, especially to non-native speakers like me. I've seen so many terms for describing someone with a disability:

  • handicapped;
  • handicapable;
  • disabled;
  • differently abled;
  • invalid;
  • incapable;
  • crippled;
  • monoplegic;
  • having special needs;
  • ...

The list goes on and on, and it changes on a regular basis. So what is the proper term to use for e.g. someone who is blind, deaf, missing a leg, autistic,...?

  • 1
    This entry describes some of the mentioned terms above. Note that some of the words you listed, such as monoplegic have an specific meaning and won't be appliable to most disablities. – jinawee Sep 8 '14 at 10:48
  • At least in the U.S., I think the safest term (of the ones you mention) is disabled. – J.R. Sep 8 '14 at 12:10
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I have been taught (I just finished my M.Ed., and we discussed this in class a lot, though I don't have a citation) that the primary principle of referring to persons with disabilities is the "person first" rule. In other words, you use the formula with , like "woman with Autism," instead of "*autistic woman." The reason for this is that a person is first a person, and only incidentally disabled. Other phrasings are said to "define a person in terms of their disability" which is not correct.

So in some of your above examples, "person with quadriplegia" (or whatever the disease in question is) would be the accepted terminology.

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Please note that I am answering this question from a U.S. perspective.

The Words

Handicapped and disabled are common and accepted in everyday use. We have handicapped parking spots and disabled veterans, and most people do not take offense to those two terms.

Special needs is also acceptable, although many people use it to specifically refer to learning disabilities, since the term is often used in the context of schools.

The terms invalid, incapable, and cripple[d] are considered archaic and offensive to most people, since they emphasize that disabled people cannot do certain things.

There are people who support alternative terms like differently abled, but I suggest that you avoid using them, since the ambiguity of these words can lead to confusion. This term is only really used in America, and according to the Oxford Dictionaries Online, it "has gained little currency, … and can seem overeuphemistic and condescending. The accepted term in general use is still disabled."

The above examples are used when talking about people with disabilities in general, no matter what condition they may be suffering from. Terms like monoplegic describe a specific condition with a narrow medical definition, so you should only use them when you want to talk about that condition specifically.

How to use them

Several major academic and medical organizations (like, for example, the American Psychological Association) suggest that when writing and talking about people with disabilities, we should talk about the person first, and then the disability. That is, we should say a man with a mental handicap instead of a mentally handicapped man. This is to avoid dehumanization of the person, and is known as people-first language.

Hope this helps.

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