Portrayal Issues

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. 

That said, people with disabilities are like every other human being – they have strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures, hopes and dreams. Like other minority groups, they don’t want to be stereotyped when their stories are told. By following these guidelines, you can portray people with disabilities in an accurate and objective manner.

Put the person first, not his or her disability. Use person with a disability, woman with multiple sclerosis or a child who has an intellectual disability. This “person-first language” puts the focus on individuals, not their functional limitations. Labeling a person (for example, an autistic) dehumanizes him and equates a person with a condition. Think people first, too, for indicating disability groups, such as people who have cerebral palsy.

Emphasize abilities, not limitations. For example, uses a wheelchair or uses a communication device rather than confined to a wheelchair or unable to speak. In reality, wheelchairs and other assistive devices represent independence for their users, not a burden. To emphasize capabilities, avoid negative words that portray the person as passive or suggest a lack of something, such as victim, invalid or defective. While the term disability itself implies a negative, it is the most objective term we have in English.

Do not focus on a disability unless it is essential to a story. Avoid tear-jerking human interest stories about incurable diseases, congenital disabilities or severe injury. Focus instead on issues that affect the quality of life for those same individuals, such as accessible housing and transportation, affordable health care, employment opportunities and discrimination. Focus on personal characteristics that aren’t related to disability, such as artist, professional, mother, etc.  

Bypass condescending euphemisms. Terms such as special, handicapable, differently abled and challenged reinforce the idea that people cannot deal honestly with their disabilities. While special is used in the names of some educational programs and organizations, the use of special needs is offensive to many adults with disabilities, who want to be treated like everyone else in their community. Special also implies a paternalistic need to be taken care of, which is frequently not true. Just say children with disabilities.  

Do not portray successful people with disabilities as heroic overachievers or long-suffering saints. Every human faces challenges in life. Even though the public may find such portrayals inspirational, these stereotypes raise false expectations for people with disabilities.

Avoid sensationalizing and negative labeling. Saying afflicted with, crippled with, victim of or suffers from portrays individuals with disabilities as helpless objects of pity and charity. State the facts in neutral terms, saying a person who has AIDS. Avoid emotional descriptors such as unfortunate or pitiful.

Do not equate disability with illness. People with disabilities can be healthy, though they may have chronic diseases such as arthritis, heart disease and diabetes. People who had polio and experienced after-effects have post-polio syndrome; they are not currently experiencing the active phase of the virus. Also, do not imply disease if a person’s disability resulted from anatomical or physiological damage (for example, a person with spina bifida). Finally, do not refer to people with disabilities as patientsunless their relationship with their doctor is under discussion, or if they are referenced in the context of a clinical setting.

Respect the person. Do not use offensive words such as retard, freak, lame, subnormal, vegetable and imbecile. If you maintain the dignity and integrity of each individual, there is no need to panic about being politically correct.When appropriate, you may ask a person how she prefers you to describe her disability. While some common phrases can be hurtful, such as blind as a bat, it’s fine to use everyday expressions like See you later.


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