Getting the language right

Language can act as a barrier when it is negative and misrepresents disabled people and their lives. It can create stigmas and labels. Positive language, on the other hand, can attract people and encourage them to get on the water.

Language that is based on the social model of disability is going to reflect the lived experience of many people. The social model of disability says that it is the barriers in society that create disability and that when you remove these barriers people have more choice, control and independence.

Language is tricky. Some terms and words are more acceptable to the majority than others, but it is also very personal. The start point is always be open, kind, avoid causing offence and ask the person what language and terms they prefer.

Collective terms and identity

Collective terms should describe groups of people rather than focus only on a description. Disabled people is preferred, ‘The disabled’ is not.

Identity can be important. For example people whose first language is British Sign Language consider themselves as part of the deaf community and may describe themselves as Deaf (with a capital D).

Not everyone identifies with the term ‘disabled people’. For example, an older person might think of a sight and hearing loss to be a natural part of the ageing process and nothing to do with being a disabled person. So you don’t always have to refer to ‘disabled people’. Often once you have set the context, even with the right photo, you can talk about people, participants, or sailors.

Everyday phrases

Most disabled people are comfortable with words and phrases we use every day  - ‘go for a walk’, ‘see you soon’ – even if some of these things are done in a different way. But do try to avoid phrases that have negative connotations – for example, ‘turning a deaf ear’, ‘Blind drunk’.

Some people may reclaim phrases that previously had negative connotations for all sorts of reasons around empowerment and identity. The terms may remain controversial though and others will remain offended by them. Always take the lead from the person themselves.

Plain English

Often in trying to get our language right, we end up with clunky or complicated phrases. Using clear and plain language helps everyone.

Do’s and Don’ts

Remember – what is acceptable to one person, may cause offence to another – so always ask, and check.

Do use

Don’t use

Disabled person or people with impairments/ health conditions

The disabled, handicapped, crippled

Person or non-disabled person

Able-bodied person, normal person

Dwarf, person of short stature, person with a restricted growth condition


Person with a certain condition or impairment, e.g. autistic person


Wheelchair or mobility-scooter user

Wheelchair or mobility-scooter bound, or confined

Learning disability or person with an intellectual impairment

Retarded, backwards, slow, mentally handicapped

Deaf people/hearing impaired person

The deaf

Blind people/visually impaired person

The blind

Brain injury

Brain damage

Has [name of condition or impairment]

Afflicted by, suffers from, victim of [name of condition or impairment]

Mental health problem/issue


Getting the conversation right means we need to know what is important to people. The Activity Alliance's ten principles may help.

Next: principles underpinning the conversation