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Ableist Language & Disability Professionals: Commonly Used Language

By Carli Friedman, CQL Director of Research, and Zach Gordon, AAIDD Production Coordinator, Publications

In this two-part research series, we examine ableist language and disability professionals. Specifically, we examined if disability professionals (people working in a disability field, who work with disabled people, or whose work is about disability) use ableist language, if they recognize it as problematic, and, in part two of the series, demographic differences in disability professionals’ language use. Skip to accessible summary.


For disabled people, language and ableism – discrimination and oppression of disabled people – have always been intertwined (Brown, 2014; Linton, 1998). Language has been, and continues to be, a source of oppression for disabled people. For example, disability terminology has been used to justify the segregation, institutionalization, and forced sterilization of disabled people (Trent, 1994). Often, this language is so deeply embedded in our everyday language use that speakers are not aware of their ableist language use (Carruthers, 2019).

Research indicates ableist language results in nondisabled people having more negative views of disabled people and having less tolerance for them (Garcia et al., 2020; Granello & Gibbs, 2016). In addition, ableist language also results in stigma and shame (Ben-Moshe, 2005; Caldwell, 2011; Sherry et al., 2020). For example, ‘retarded’ (the R-word) was once a clinical diagnosis for people with intellectual disabilities; although the term has since gone out of favor in the medical realm, largely because of advocacy by people with intellectual disabilities, it still remains as a cultural insult.

Types of Ableist Language

Overtly Ableist Language

Ableist disability language commonly falls into three categories: overtly ableist language; euphemistically ableist language; and contextually ableist language. Overtly ableist words and phrases, such as the R-word, ‘deranged’, and ‘crazy,’ are less subtle, and are offensive and hurtful (Linton, 1998). While many of these terms, such as ‘idiot,’ ‘insane,’ ‘lame,’ etc., originated as medical diagnoses for disabled people, medical diagnoses labels have since evolved, yet, these words remain as everyday pejoratives (Ben-Moshe, 2005; Sherry et al., 2020; Trent, 1994). Although sometimes designed to bully disabled people directly, more often, these terms are used as insults directed toward nondisabled people (Garcia et al., 2020). However, even when the targets of these insults are nondisabled people, the use of this language still further stigmatizes disabled people (Siperstein et al., 2010).

Some overtly ableist words and phrases, such as ‘blind to,’ ‘crippled,’ and ‘lame,’ also use disability as metaphors (Ben-Moshe, 2005; Schalk, 2013). For example, a politician’s last months are often described as ‘lame duck,’ downturn economies are often described as ‘crippled,’ ignored advice is often described as ‘falling on deaf ears,’ and so on. The use of these words and phrases as metaphors make presumptions about disability that distort the lived realities of disabled people, reinforcing that disability is negative and associating it with inability, lack, and loss (Ben-Moshe, 2005; Schalk, 2013).

Euphemistically Ableist Language

Euphemistic ableist words, such as ‘differently abled,’ ‘special needs,’ and ‘people with abilities,’ were created by ‘well-meaning’ nondisabled people (Andrews et al., 2022; Linton, 1998). Despite the flowery language often involved, these terms imply disability is inherently negative, that it is too bad and sad to name, and that it is to be avoided (Brown, 2013; Linton, 1998). While doing so, these terms promote infantilization and paternalism, while still othering disabled people (Andrews et al., 2022; Linton, 1998).

Some euphemistically ableist words, such as ‘people affected by disability,’ also associate disabled people with passivity, suffering, and affliction (Ben-Moshe, 2005; Linton, 1998). These types of phrases imply disability is something negative that happens to disabled people and/or that they suffer from. Not only do these phrases project experiences onto disability, they also ignore that disability is a social/political identity (Linton, 1998). This type of patronizing language from nondisabled people can leave the nondisabled individual feeling good, but ultimately it implies disability is inherently negative (Fox & Giles, 1996).

Contextually Ableist Language

Contextually ableist words may be ableist in some context and not ableist in others. For example, terms like ‘depressed,’ ‘bipolar,’ and ‘OCD,’ are not necessarily ableist when used to refer to specific disabilities or diagnoses disabled people have. However, it is ableist to use these terms to negatively critique others or their behavior (Brown, 2021).

Language and Disability Professionals

Disability professionals have long played a role in disability language and terminology by creating and reinforcing deficit-based understandings of disability, often without the input of disabled people themselves (Bottema-Beutel et al., 2021; Oliver, 1990). For example, despite many disabled people preferring identity-first language (i.e., ‘disabled people’), many disability professions still default to person-first language (i.e., ‘person with a disability’) as it was originally championed as the ‘correct’ approach (Andrews et al., 2019; Andrews et al., 2022); as a result, some disability professionals still believe identity-first language is wrong. Disability professions and industries have been critiqued for creating and reinforcing individualized, deficit-based understandings of disability – often pathologizing disability with the help of stigmatizing, objectifying terminology (Oliver, 1990).

Design of This Study

As a result of the harmful impact of ableist language, as well as the role disability professionals can play in disabled people’s health and quality of life, it is important to examine ableist language among disability professionals. For these reasons, the aim of this study was to examine how disability professionals use ableist language and if they recognize ableist language as problematic.

To do so, a total of 347 disability professionals participated in this study between October 2021 and March 2022 (participant demographics are available in Appendix Table 1). In the online survey, participants were asked to select from a list of words/phrases they used in everyday conversation as well as those words they found problematic. The list included overtly ableist words, euphemistically ableist words, contextually ableist words, and disability words that are not inherently ableist. We analyzed participants’ use and perceptions of language – if they found the word problematic or not – using descriptive statistics. We also used a two-way contingency table to examine the relationship between use and perception of language.


Disability professionals used an average of 10.1% of the possible overtly ableist words. The most commonly used overtly ableist words were ‘crazy’, ‘stupid’, and ‘insane’; the least commonly used overtly ableist words were ‘crippled’, ‘cuckoo’, and ‘retarded’ (see Appendix Table 2). Disability professionals found an average of 75.0% of the overtly ableist words problematic. ‘Retarded’, ‘crippled’, and ‘moron’ were the terms most frequently identified as problematic, while ‘delusional’, ‘blind to’, and ‘psychotic’ were least frequently identified as problematic. The contingency analysis revealed that most of those disability professionals who used the terms ‘deranged,’ ‘cuckoo,’ ‘retarded,’ ‘crippled,’ ‘lame,’ and ‘crazy’ did so while knowing that the terms were problematic.

Disability professionals used an average of 25.8% of the euphemistically ableist words. While ‘people living with disabilities’, ‘people struggling with mental illness’ and ‘special needs’ were the most commonly used euphemistically ableist words, ‘handicapable’, ‘differently abled’, and ‘people experiencing disability’ were the least. Disability professionals found an average of 29.4% of euphemistically ableist words problematic. The euphemistically ableist words most frequently recognized as problematic were ‘handicapable’, ‘consumer’, and ‘special needs’. The euphemistically ableist words least frequently recognized as problematic were ‘people living with disabilities’, ‘people experiencing disability’, and ‘people with abilities’. The majority of disability professionals who used euphemistically ableist words did not recognize them as problematic.


The language we use to describe our world has a profound impact on how we perceive its contents, perceptions that in turn influence our language choices as well as our attitudes and behaviors. In our study, fewer disability professionals used overtly ableist words than euphemistically ableist, and disability professionals commonly reported overtly ableist words were problematic. For example, it was uncommon for disability professionals to use the R-word, suggesting the word has fallen out of favor in the professional community, likely due to advocacy by people with intellectual disabilities (Caldwell, 2011). However, there were a number of overtly ableist words that disability professionals continued to use, often doing so even when they knew the word was problematic. For example, of disability professionals that used ‘crazy,’ about half knew the term was problematic but continued using the word anyways.

Given how common overtly ableist words like ‘crazy,’ ‘idiot,’ and ‘stupid’ remain in our culture, we expected even more disability professionals to report using some of these terms. While participants were specifically asked to select words they use in casual conversation, given the survey was for disability professionals, this may have primed participants to interpret the survey as asking if they used these words to specifically refer to disabled people as part of professional practice, rather than in casual language. In addition, the very act of asking someone to actively think about their language may result in a heightened metalinguistic awareness, causing people to respond in an artificial way when asked about their own language use, since most communicative language is done automatically and without conscious thought (Preston, 2004). Some disability professionals may have also hidden their true language use due to social pressure if they knew they should not be using these terms and/or were concerned about what use of these words revealed about them.

In fact, these social pressures, and social norms which favor implicit rather than explicit ableism likely contributed to the birth and continued use of euphemistically ableist terms, and why most disability professionals did not recognize euphemistically ableist words as problematic. It is common for well-meaning implicitly biased people – aversive ableists – to overcorrect and go out of their way to appear non-prejudiced in situations where evidence of their own implicit attitudes causes them discomfort and/or they could be ‘caught’ being prejudiced (Friedman, 2018, 2019). Euphemistically ableist terms are nondisabled people’s attempt to wrap disability in a ‘positive’ framing, albeit one that ultimately is still oppressive – simply masking ableism rather than eradicating it. It appeared especially difficult for disability professionals in our study to see language that associates disabled people with passivity, affliction, and suffering (Ben-Moshe, 2005; Linton, 1998), such as ‘people affected by disability,’ as problematic. This euphemistically ableist language reinforces low expectations of disabled people and creates a sense of pity among nondisabled people (Harris & Fiske, 2007). Although the users of this language are not necessarily aware or intentionally patronizing, use of this language can reinforce a sense of shame regarding disability.


While there were differences in the types of ableist language used, most disability professionals in this study reported at least some use of ableist language. As such, our findings indicate further education of disability professionals about ableist language is necessary, including how to recognize ableist language and the role this language plays in disability oppression. Doing so would be especially useful for euphemistically ableist language since it was harder for disability professionals to recognize as problematic.

However, educating disability professionals about language alone is not enough. In fact, many of the disability professionals in this study who used overtly ableist language already recognized those terms were problematic but continued using this language anyways. For this reason, in addition to education about disability and language, its also necessary to reduce ableism among disability professionals writ large. This is especially pertinent as research indicates ableism is extremely prevalent among disability professionals (Friedman, 2023).


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