12:25pm 15/06/2023
Using respectful and appropriate disability language
By:Dato’ Dr. Amar-Singh HSS et al
Dato’ Dr. Amar-Singh HSS

This is an open letter to all media practitioners, especially editors, Members of Parliament (MPs), state assemblymen (ADUNs), and ministers.

We thank those of you who have demonstrated support for persons with disabilities.

With Malaysia’s aspiration to be a developed nation, it is time to consider the use of inappropriate language to refer to persons with disabilities and disability-related matters.

How do we use terminology that shapes behavior to break barriers and exclusion? Not reinforce those.

Respectful and appropriate disability language in communication acknowledges the dignity and celebrates the diversity of persons with disabilities.

It does not reinforce negative stereotyping and derogatory labels that connote pity and lesser value.

Each time that respectful and appropriate language is used is a blow to discrimination on the basis of disability.

Respectful and appropriate disability language also recognizes that disability is not the defining characteristic of a person, but rather one aspect of individual identity and experience.

We would like to share some general principles of respectful/appropriate disability language and hope this will translate into better media reporting and comments/statements made by ministers, MPs and ADUNs.

First, it is important to respect the preferences and choices of persons with disabilities regarding how to be referred to. When in doubt, just ask the person with disability.

Second, please avoid euphemisms or terms that are patronizing, offensive or inaccurate.

For example, do not use terms such as “special needs,” “differently abled,” “handicapped,” or “mentally retarded.”

These terms imply that disability is something to be ashamed of, to be hidden or avoided. It reinforces the medical model that views disability as “an anomaly” to be medically “fixed,” and persons with disabilities as “damaged” and “incomplete.”

Instead, acknowledge the centrality of the person (see table below) and use clear and respectful terms such as “disability,”  accessibility,” “accommodation,” or “inclusion.”

One common incorrect reference to the non-disabled population is “normal” or “healthy.”

This reinforces the wrong view that persons with disabilities (the OKU community) are somehow “abnormal” or “unhealthy.”

It is best to use “non-disabled” in place of “normal” or “healthy,” and use “neurotypical” instead of “of sound mind.”

Third, avoid terms that underscore a “victim” attitude towards disability, such as “suffering from,” “afflicted with,” “confined to,” or “incapacitated by.”

These terms perpetrate outdated views that disability is a burden, a tragedy and a source of pity.

Instead, use neutral or positive terms such as “living with,” “experiencing” or “having.”

Some persons may prefer identity-first language, such as “autistic person” or “deaf person,” rather than person-first language, e.g., “person with autism.”

The table below offers suggested terms to use and words to avoid for some common disabilities; it is not exhaustive.

It lists some suggested terms in accordance with international good practice – see the 2022 United Nations Disability-Inclusive Communications Guidelines

Terminology that dignifies persons with disabilities and OKU community

Inappropriate terminology to be avoided

Persons with disabilities or disabled persons
Person with disability or disabled person

Differently abled
Special needs child/person
Special person

Orang Kurang Upaya (OKU)

Orang Kelainan Upaya
Kanak-kanak Istimewa

Person with intellectual disability
Person with intellectual impairment

Retard, idiot, imbecile, moron,
Feeble-minded, mental defective
Mentally challenged/ retarded/handicapped

Person with a learning disability 

Slow learner, stupid

Person with Down Syndrome

Mongoloid or Down

Deaf person and hard-of-hearing person
Person with a hearing disability/impairment

Deaf and dumb, deafie
Hearing impaired

Blind person, low-vision person
Person with visual impairment/disability
Deafblind person

The blind
The visually impaired

Person with autism
Autistic person (if the person self-identifies this way)
Neurodiverse person
Person on the autism spectrum

Avoid adding any of the following:
“low-functioning” or “high-functioning,” “mild,” “moderate” or “severe”

Person with ADHD

Hyper or hyperactive

Person with [type of impairment, e.g., epilepsy] or [medical condition, e.g., diabetes]

Epileptic child
Bed-bound or bed-ridden

Person with albinism


Person with cerebral palsy


Persons with psychosocial disabilities
Survivors and users of psychiatry/ psychiatric services

Crazy, loony, mental, insane
Psycho, deranged
Not of sound mind

Persons with dementia
Persons living with dementia

Demented, senile

Para sports/games
Para athlete

Handicapped sports, special sports
Handicapped athlete, special athlete

Little person, person of short stature

Midget, dwarf, stunted

Person with mobility impairment/ disability
Person who uses a mobility device

Wheelchair-bound, confined to a wheelchair
Physically challenged

Person who has quadriplegia
Person who has paraplegia


Person who uses a communication device
Person who uses an alternative method of communication


Person or address the person by the person’s given name

“Case”/Case number

Accessible parking, parking reserved for persons with disabilities
Accessible bathroom
Accessible/disability-inclusive building

Disabled/handicapped parking
Handicapped bathroom
Handicapped friendly building

Language is constantly evolving. The change happens as disabled persons change, as does community understanding of our relationships, rights, place in society and aspirations for the future.

The key is to remain respectful of each other, as we work towards ensuring that everyone’s place in society is enabled and we grow as an inclusive society.

Using respectful and appropriate language empowers the individual and the community.

It is time that we as a nation change our use of demeaning terminology to respect persons with disabilities.

Let’s remember this: disability does not limit a person; it is the inaccessible environment that stops progress.

And, our choice of language shapes that environment.

Click here for the signatories.


Dato' Dr Amar-Singh HSS


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