Language evolves. What was once acceptable, or even polite, is no longer appropriate. In fact, the Special Olympics ran a campaign called #NoGoodWay which aimed to end the use of the R-word (retard) in everyday conversation. You can watch one of their ads here.

Data collection tools, such as screeners, questionnaires, discussion guides, and interviews must also evolve their language to ensure they remain respectful to the health care professionals, patients, and people who participate in our research projects, and to their families and loved ones. If further incentive is necessary, respectful language can even help to encourage participation and higher response rates.

Choose more precise adjectives: The English language is cluttered with words stolen from mental and physical health environments to describe other situations. For example, words like daft, dumb, freak, and idiot sneak into our language when we don’t realize it. Instead, we can choose more precise and descriptive words like absurd, annoying, frustrating, and nonsensical that aren’t inadvertently unkind.

  • Do you feel dumb when you forget to take your medication?
  • Better: Do you feel annoyed when you forget to take your medication?

Avoid metaphors that not everyone understands: The English language includes innumerable metaphors, analogies, and similes, some of which native English speakers have heard since we were toddlers and some of which we make up on the spot. For instance, we might say ‘falls on deaf ears’ or ‘crippled with debt.’ Many of these metaphors are nonsensical to people who aren’t native speakers and, even worse, many of them are unkind. Rather than being unkind, we can choose more descriptive words like ‘unaware’ or ‘severe debt.’

  • Do your requests for functioning elevators fall on deaf ears?
  • Do people pay attention to your requests for functioning elevators?

Stay current with disability language: Sometimes, screeners and questionnaires will need to refer to people who have specific disabilities or conditions. Ensure the questions and answers refer to the person first and the disability second – a person with disabilities. Second, rather than assume or force people into a negative connotation by saying they are ‘afflicted’ or ‘suffer’ with something, choose neutral words like ‘has arthritis,’ ‘uses a wheelchair.’ or ‘has a physical disability’ so that the emotion is decided on by the person experiencing it.

  • Which of these ailments are you afflicted with?
  • Better: Which of these ailments do you have?

The exception to the rule: There are, of course, always exceptions. For instance, autistic people prefer to be referenced as such. Saying ‘people with autism,’ isn’t their preferred phrasing. No matter the situation, if you aren’t 100% sure what language is most appropriate, speak with someone in the community to ensure you’re being respectful.

Here is a quick guide to words and phrases that can often be avoided in favour of more respectful and better quality words.

Avoid these words: crazy, cretin, cuckoo, daft, delusional, deranged, derp, dim, dumb, feeble-minded, freak, idiot, imbecile, insane, lame, loony, lunatic, mad, madman, maniac, mental defective, moron, nuts, psycho, psychotic, retarded, schizo, simpleton, sociopath, spaz, special needs, stupid, the “r” word, whacko

Choose these words: absurd, amazing, angry, annoying, asinine, awesome, awful, bad, bizarre, cheesy, childish, daunting, dense, dorky, dull, extreme, farcical, fascinating, fathomless, foolish, frustrating, gross, ignorant, Illogical, insensible, insipid, intense, irritating, ludicrous, menacing, nonsensical, obnoxious, outrageous, overwhelming, pointless, preposterous, rage inducing, reckless, ridiculous, senseless, silly, the pits, threatening, tyrannical, unacceptable, uncool, unpleasant, unreasonable, useless, wild

Avoid these words: “the” blind, “the” disabled, afflicted with _____, confined / restricted to a wheelchair, cripple, deformed, disabled people, gimp, handicapped, invalid, lame, left ____ from the accident, spaz, suffers from _____, victim of ____, wheelchair-bound, midget, mongoloid, mongol

Choose these words: aspie, autistic person, blind, deaf, disabled, Down Syndrome, hard of hearing, has a chronic health condition, has a disability, in a wheelchair, little person, low vision, neuroatypical, neurodivergent, uses a cane/ walker/ wheelchair/ crutches, with a chronic health condition, with a disability, with a mobility/physical disability,

Avoid these words: an autistic devotion to something, be all ears, blind to her faults, blind to the consequences, color-blind (in terms of race), crippled by debt, deaf to their screams, eyes opened, falls on deaf ears, paralyzed by fear, stand your ground, tone-deaf

Choose these words: consumed by, engrossed with, ignorant, ill-informed, inattentive, infatuated with, mindless, oblivious, unobservant, unaware


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