Establishing Guidelines for Writing About People with Disabilities


In general, disabling language is language that perpetuates myths about people with disabilities; uses a disability as a noun (for instance, "the blind"); and uses a demeaning, often outdated word for a disability (for instance, "idiot" for someone who has developmental disabilities). Thelanguage of disability is always evolving, so the answer to what is disabling language is always changing.

Purpose and Anticipated Benefits

By providing an updated listing of disability-related words and phrases used by people with disabilities and the organizations who provide them services, the media can avoid reinforcing disability as a condition of weakness.


Michael Jones, Research and Training Center on Independent Living at the University of Kansas, initiated this media sensitivity project that has had the endorsement of numerous disability organizations including Accent on Living Magazine; Advocates for Children New York; Advocates for Persons with Disabling Conditions in Allied Health; AIDs Action Council, American Association for the Advancement of Science; American Cleft Palate-Craniofacial Association; American Council of the Blind; American Spinal Injury Association; Arthritis Foundation; Council for Advancement & Support of Education; Disabilities Resources, Inc.; Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund; Epilepsy Foundation of America; Gallaudet University; Goodwill Industries, Inc.; Huntington’s Disease Society of America, Inc.; Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation; Learning Disabilities Association of America; National Amputation Foundation, Inc.; National Ataxia Foundation; National Brain Injury Association; National Center for Environmental Health Strategies, Inc.; National Down Syndrome Congress; National Empowerment Center, Inc.; National Information Center on Deafness; National Mental Health Association; National Organization on Disability; National Spinal Cord Injury Association; The Arc of the U.S.; The Association for Persons With Severe Handicaps; and World Institute on Disability.


The project began in 1984 and has been ongoing.


To develop the Guidelines for Reporting and Writing About People With Disabilities, more than 50 disability organizations were contacted for suggestions on preferred terminology and portrayals in media features about people with disabilities and issues affecting them. The final Guidelines represented consensus opinion of preferred terminology and portrayals.


Within two years, more than 30,000 copies of the Guidelines were distributed. Many requests came from advocacy groups interested in influencing the media in their community. These groups distributed the Guidelines to media professionals and included them in public awareness campaigns and other community education efforts. Several publishing companies and professional organizations also have adopted the Guidelines as standards for contributors to their publications. The Guidelines have also been used in inservice training programs for staff of human service agencies and in classes for journalism students. After receiving feedback from a number of users of the Guidelines suggesting that an updated and expanded edition be published, more than 100 disability organizations were contacted to solicit suggestions for the revision. [The RTC/IL has continually revised the Guidelines, which have been distributed to more than 1 million people.]


The media has welcomed the disability voice on the preferred terminology for people with disabilities. The Associated Press Stylebook, a basic reference for professional journalists, has even included sections of the brochure in its editions.


Research and Training Center on Independent Living. (2001, 7th edition). Guidelines for reporting and writing about people with disabilities. Lawrence, KS: Author.

Jones, M. L. (1987). Project works toward better media portrayals. Research and Training Center on Independent Living Forum 5(1), 15-17.