Inclusive Language for Talking About People With Intellectual Disabilities

10 Tips for Supporting Dignity and Fighting Negative Stereotypes
Three Special Olympics athletes giving a thumbs up at the 2015 World Games in Los Angeles

Words can open doors to cultivate the understanding and respect that enable people with intellectual disabilities to lead fuller, more independent lives.

The words we use can also create barriers or stereotypes that are not only demeaning to people with disabilities, but also rob them of their individuality. That’s because words have the power to hurt people with intellectual disabilities, and further isolate them from society. The language we choose to use plays a significant role in helping to create a more inclusive world.

The recent global conversation on discrimination has shined a light on how each of us can advance inclusion through our words and actions. The following tips have been developed by experts for anyone writing or speaking about people with intellectual disabilities, to ensure that all people are portrayed with dignity.

Examples of Inclusive Language for People With Disabilities

Special Olympics prefers to focus on people—and to dispel negative attitudes—by using “people-first language” that sees the individual, their gifts, and their accomplishments rather than a diagnosis. Here are a few guidelines for intellectual disability terminology, bearing in mind that language and conventions are always evolving. Special Olympics will keep evolving, too, to use inclusive language that best supports the dignity of our athletes and their preferences.

  1. Use “intellectual disability,” which replaced “mental retardation” in U.S. federal law in 2010. Refer to individuals, persons, or people with intellectual disabilities, rather than “intellectually disabled people” or “the intellectually disabled.”
  2. Similarly, say that a person has intellectual disabilities, rather than is “suffering from,” is “afflicted with,” or is “a victim of” intellectual disabilities.
  3. Do not use the terms “retardation,” “retarded,” “retard,” etc. These R-words have become hurtful slurs toward people with intellectual disabilities. Using the R-word is the same as using any slur against a minority group.
  4. Use “Down syndrome,” which has replaced “Down’s Syndrome” and “mongoloid.”
  5. Distinguish between adults and children with intellectual disabilities, as well as older or younger athletes.
  6. If relevant, say that a person “uses” a wheelchair, rather than is “confined to” or “restricted to” a wheelchair, or "wheelchair-bound."
  7. Use the word “special” with extreme care when talking about persons with intellectual disabilities. The term, if used excessively in references to Special Olympics athletes and activities, can become a cliché.
  8. Do not use the adjective “unfortunate” when talking about people with an intellectual disability. Disabling conditions do not have to be life-defining in a negative way.
  9. Do not sensationalize the accomplishments of people with disabilities. While these accomplishments should be recognized and applauded, the disability rights movement has tried to make the public aware of the negative impact of referring to the achievements of people with physical or intellectual disabilities with excessive hyperbole.
  10. Above all, if you are uncertain what terminology to use, try asking a person with a disability! Inclusion is about recognizing the humanity that connects all of us. Starting a conversation is the first step.
Person First Language

More Resources on Inclusive Language for People With Intellectual Disabilities

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