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As expressed in the UTS Disability Action Plan (2010–2014), UTS is committed to providing equitable access to all education and employment opportunities at the University. The Plan promotes greater participation by students with a disability, equal opportunity in employment for staff with a disability, and greater awareness of disability issues and support services at UTS. Discrimination against people on the basis of disability is not tolerated at UTS.

The person first: the social model of disability
Speaking about disability: terms to avoid
     Derogatory labelling
     Depersonalising or impersonal reference
     Guidelines for the use of terms relating to disability
Mental health
Disability-related terms used in higher education
Unforeseen health issues
     Colour blindness
     Anxiety and depression
Accommodating disability in the classroom
Representing people with disabilities in teaching
Further reading

The person first: the social model of disability

Disability is defined as a condition that a person has now, had in the past, may have in the future, or is believed to have. The range of conditions includes physical, sensory, intellectual, psychiatric, neurological, and learning disabilities, as well as physical disfigurement and the presence in the body of disease-causing organisms.

The term ‘people with disabilities’ is accepted when discussing disability in Australia and in most Western countries. It places the emphasis on the person first and the disability second. It does not separate the terms, but merely establishes an order for their use. The person-first approach is one way to counter prevailing medical/individual and stereotypical conceptualisations or models of disability. Those models often view disability as a personal tragedy affecting one individual, and accord blame to the ‘abnormal’ body or mind for the individual’s specific condition. Another common assumption is that people with disabilities are not capable of benefiting from higher education and employment, despite the evidence that the participation of people with disabilities in education and employment brings significant economic benefits to a country.

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Speaking about disability: terms to avoid

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Historically, people with disabilities have been described as helpless people to be pitied and cared for, objects of violence, sinister and evil, curiosities, objects of ridicule, as burdens to family and society, sexually abnormal, eternal children, or incapable of participating fully and productively in community life and work.

Because people are often uncomfortable or embarrassed about disability, many euphemisms have been created to describe disability and people living with disabilities.

Discriminatory language in relation to people with disabilities is characterised by derogatory labelling, by depersonalising, by emphasising the disability rather than the person, and by stereotyping.

Derogatory labelling

Using derogatory labels to describe members of minority groups is obviously discriminatory. Unfortunately it is still common to hear people living with disabilities labeled as ‘cripple’, ‘mongoloid’, ‘spastic’, ‘deaf and dumb’, ‘retarded’, and ‘loonie’. Such terms are offensive. Acceptable alternatives are listed below under the heading Guidelines for the use of terms relating to disability

Depersonalising or impersonal reference

Often people with a disability are referred to collectively as the disabled, the handicapped, the mentally retarded, the blind, the deaf, or paraplegics, spastics, epileptics, etc. These generic or universalising terms have the effect of depersonalising the description of people and equating the person with the disability. Additionally, these kinds of terms also portray people with disabilities as members of an ‘other/outsider’ group, separating them from the mainstream. Such impersonal references to people with disabilities are best avoided. The following terms are generally preferred for use at UTS as they recognise that the disability is only one characteristic of the person or persons, and does not define fully their identity or existence:

  • person with a disability
  • people with disabilities
  • students / staff with disabilities

If it is necessary or desirable to be more specific about the type of disability involved, the same strategy is recommended. That is, do not focus entirely on the person’s disability in the description. Put the person first and the disability second. E.g. ‘person with (name of disability)’.


Jokes’ about people with disabilities should be avoided as they are offensive to many people and may be discriminatory.


The portrayal of people with disabilities as helpless, mindless, suffering beings deserving the sympathy and attention of the non-disabled is one of many powerful stereotypes which has led and continues to lead to discriminatory treatment of people with disabilities.

Positive portrayal of people with disabilities is mainly a matter of presenting them as individuals with a variety of qualities. It does not mean that a person’s disability should be hidden, ignored or seen as irrelevant. However, it ought not be the focus of description except when the topic is disability.

Be careful not to imply that people with disabilities are to be pitied, feared or ignored, or that they are somehow more heroic, courageous, patient or ‘special’ than others. Do not use the terms ‘normal’ or ‘able-bodied’ in contrast.

Avoid using the terms ‘victim’ or ‘sufferer’ to refer to a person who has or has had an illness, disease or disability. These terms dehumanise the person and emphasise powerlessness.

Guidelines for the use of terms relating to disability

If it is appropriate to refer to a person’s disability, choose the correct terminology for the specific disability. For example:

  • person with a mobility impairment
  • person with an intellectual disability
  • person with Down Syndrome
  • person with cerebral palsy
  • person with hearing and speech disabilities
  • person with a mental illness
  • person who is blind / vision impaired (depending upon the degree of impairment)
  • person with paraplegia
  • person with quadriplegia
  • person with epilepsy
  • person with a speech impairment

Below are some commonly used phrases and suggested alternatives:

Instead of Able-bodied
Use Non-disabled.
Instead of Abnormal, subnormal
Use Specify the disability
Instead of Afflicted with
Use Person has/lives with (name of disability)
Instead of Birth defect, congenital defect
Use Person with/living with a disability since birth; person with/living with a congenital disability
Instead of Blind, the blind, visually impaired
Use Person who is blind, person with/living with a vision impairment
Instead of Cripple, crippled
Use Person with/living with a physical/mobility disability
Instead of Deaf, the deaf
Use Person who is deaf (lower case is used to refer to someone who cannot hear and who does not identify with the Deaf community), people who are deaf / hearing impaired /people who have a hearing disability Deaf people (Upper case refers only to people who identify themselves as part of the Deaf community and who use sign language)
Instead of Deaf and dumb
Use Person who is deaf and non-verbal, or
The Deaf or Deaf people (Upper case refers only to people who identify themselves as part of the Deaf community and who use sign language)
Instead of Defective
Use Person with/living with an intellectual disability
Instead of Deformed, deformity
Use Person has/lives with (name of disability)
Instead of Differently abled
Use Person has/lives with (name of disability)
Instead of The disabled
Use Person with/living with a disability
Instead of Dwarf
Use Short-statured person
Instead of Epileptic
Use Person with/living with epilepsy
Instead of Fit, attack, spell
Use Seizure, Epileptic Seizure
Instead of The handicapped
Use Person with/living with a disability
Instead of Intellectually challenged
Use Person has/lives with an intellectual disability / name of disability
Instead of Insane, lunatic, psycho, unsound mind
Use Person with/living with a psychiatric disability/condition/mental illness
Instead of Invalid
Use Person with/living with a disability
Instead of Mental, the mentally ill, mental patient, mentally diseased, mentally retarded, moron, retarded, feeble minded, imbecile
Use Person with/living with a psychiatric or intellectual disability/condition
Instead of Mongol (outmoded and derogatory)
Use Person with/living with Downs Syndrome
Instead of Paraplegic, paraplegics
Use A person with paraplegia, people with paraplegia
Instead of Patient (best used to describe a doctor-patient relationship)
Use Person with/living with a (name of) disability/condition/illness
Instead of Physically challenged
Use Person has/lives with (name of disability)
Instead of The physically handicapped
Use People with physical disabilities
Instead of People with disabilities (implies a person with more than one disability)
Use Person with/living with multiple disabilities; People with/living with a disability
Instead of Retarded
Use Person with/living with an intellectual disability
Instead of Schizophrenic (to be avoided; it connotes an array of possible disabilities, and is often popularly misunderstood as a cover-all term for irrationality, inability to cope with daily existence, confusion, or split personality)
Use Person with/living with a psychiatric condition or (name specific condition)
Instead of Spastic (a derogatory term when used as a noun)
Use Person with/living with cerebral palsy, or (name a specific disability)
Instead of Suffers from, Sufferer, Stricken with
Use Person with/living with a disability
Instead of Vegetative
Use Person in a coma, comatose, unconscious
Instead of Vertically challenged
Use Person of short stature
Instead of Victim(s) of …(e.g: Victim of AIDS, Victim of polio)
Use Person has/lives with a particular disability; people living with a disability. Person who had polio
Person living with HIV/AIDS, or, if the person is deceased, ‘dying/having died/died having lived with HIV/AIDS.’
Instead of Wheelchair bound
Use Person who uses a wheelchair

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Mental health

‘Mental illness’ is a term that covers a range of conditions. Many people speak of ‘the mentally ill’ thus creating a group identity that binds together people who have diverse conditions, behaviours and experiences. People defined in such a way often struggle to be seen as individuals above and beyond the definition, and struggle also for their individual illness, and their experiences of it, to be understood.

A common example is the widespread use of the term ‘schizophrenic’. This term is used as an adjective in colloquial speech to denote a generalised mental condition, which in turn implies irrationality, inability to cope with daily existence, confusion, split personality, and even potential violence. Non-specific or metaphorical uses of the term should be avoided.

Due to the widespread social stigmatisation of mental illness, many people with mental illness understandably choose not to disclose their condition publicly. In educational settings, in particular, many people living with mental illnesses choose not to let either their teachers or peers know about their condition.

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Disability-related terms used in higher education

In the higher education sector, a number of terms are used to describe the links between disability and learning:

Invisible disabilities
Invisible disabilities refers to a range of conditions that might not be readily identifiable, for example, mental health issues and psychiatric illnesses. Due to that lack of identifiability, university students and staff requesting accommodations for their disability may encounter negative attitudes.

Person with a Learning disability
A person with any disability that has an impact on how that person learns.

Person with a Print disability
a person without sight; or
a person whose sight is severely impaired; or
a person unable to hold or manipulate books or to focus or move his or her eyes; or
a person with a perceptual disability.

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Unforeseen health issues

A number of health conditions or issues are not often regarded as either disabilities or impairments important enough to be taken seriously in teaching and learning settings. Nonetheless, they may affect teachers and students alike, and thus require sensitivity. Below are some examples:


Teachers and students may be allergic to chalk and chalk dust.

Colour blindness

A significant portion of the population lives with colour blindness, which can range from severe to mild in terms of the person’s ability to recognise the colour spectrum. While not necessarily carrying stigma, people with the condition may be too embarrassed to point out that they cannot distinguish between colours, for example when reading text or numbers on a whiteboard or computer screen.


Examples of phobias that may impact on classes are:

  • phobia of animals (such as spiders, stray birds, moths that may enter by accident, or guide dogs that may accompany a member of the class)
  • phobia of dirt or germs (which may manifest in unusual behaviour, such as a student placing newspapers on seats and tables because he or she cannot touch bare surfaces)
  • claustrophobia (which makes it difficult for the person with claustrophobia to remain in a small or confined teaching area, and may interfere with classroom group exercises or tasks).

Anxiety and depression

These conditions, which may affect people for long or short periods, might impact on the teaching and learning experience even if the people with anxiety or depression do not regard themselves as having a disability.

In all such cases, sensitivity should be shown by teachers and students alike in making the learning space as comfortable as possible for all participants, in not drawing unnecessary attention to ‘oddness’ or ‘strange’ behaviour, and in noting which aspects of the teaching and learning environment and its technologies may require adjustment to accommodate everybody’s needs.

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Accommodating disability in the classroom

There are many ways of accommodating people with disabilities in the classroom:

Discuss needs with student
Employ the assistance of University experts
Make resources available early
Guide reading and tasks
Vary teaching methods
Read aloud material written on boards, overheads or PowerPoint
Accept the use of note takers or taping of lectures
If in doubt ask the student

Reading lists and videos
Timely provision of information in alternative formats – Braille, large print, digital formats
Longer times to read
Read aloud material written on boards, overheads or PowerPoint
Describe diagrams/photos
Non verbal cues need to be verbalised
Taping lectures
If in doubt ask the student

Course material in print
Seating location
Lip reading - keep your face visible
Visual aids
Hearing loops/FM systems
Auslan Interpreters
Taping lectures as a learning aid
Extra time
TTY and email
SMS for short messages
If in doubt ask the student

Create an enabling environment - access of venues, continuous pathway, line of sight etc.
Getting there…
Personal space/eye contact
Assistance/location of mobility aid
Assistance with manual assessment tasks
Time extension for assignments & exams
Accept the use of note takers or taping of lectures
If in doubt ask the student

Individual students may elect not to disclose their disability to lecturers, even when the disability is visible. While some disabilities are more visible than others, tact and sensitivity are essential in negotiating the needs of the students concerned.

Other students with disabilities may not relate to the term ‘disability’ at all. This is particularly common among students with anxiety, depression, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, and chronic fatigue syndrome. Students in this situation, nevertheless, often require accommodations and may face difficult transitions without them. For such students, avoiding the term ‘disability’ and using a range of additional terms may be required to best assist the students’ transitional periods.

Sometimes, lecturers make accommodations in their subjects for students who claim to have a disability. All students with disabilities that may affect their learning should refer to the Faculty ALO and the UTS Special Needs Service. The Disability Standards for Education requires UTS staff to consult with students with disabilities; therefore effective referrals are important for staff to meet their teaching responsibilities.

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Confidentiality is often very important for students with disabilities. Staff should avoid discussing disability issues about a particular person in the presence of other students. Information about a student's disability should not be shared with other staff, unless they have a specific need to know – or it has been requested by the student. Similarly, written material about a student with disabilities should be regarded as confidential.

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Representing people with disabilities in teaching

It is important to extend the non-discriminatory portrayal of people with disabilities to their presentation in case materials, illustrations, and class discussions when appropriate. For example, people with disabilities should not be excluded from illustrations unrelated to the topic of disability, nor should they be portrayed as oddities or as objects of curiosity.

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Sources and further references


The above information is adapted from:
The brochures Language Matters (Equity and Diversity Unit, UTS, 1994),
Anne Pauwels' Non-Discriminatory Language (AGPS, Canberra, 1991), and
Simon Darcy's I in 5 (UTS, 1993).

Other references

Australian Human Rights Commission, 2006. Copyright and Print Disability: Frequently Asked Questions.
Online source (opens an external site)

A Way with Words: Guidelines for the Portrayal of People with a Disability. 2005 (repr. 2006). State of Queensland (Disability Services, Queensland). Brisbane.

A Way with Words and Images: Guidelines for the Portrayal of Persons with Disabilities, 2002. Social Development Canada.
Online source (opens an external site)

Barnes, Colin, 1992. Disabling Imagery and the Media: An Exploration of the Principles for Media Representations of Disabled People, British Council of Organisations of Disabled People/Ryburn Publishing: Halifax, UK.

Bulsara, Ashwin, n.d. Depictions of People with Disabilities in the British Media. Media Diversity Institute, London.
Online source (opens an external site)

Corbett, J.,1996. Bad-mouthing: The Language of Special Needs, Falmer Press, London; Washington, D.C..

Darcy, Simon, 2002. Marginalised Participation: Physical Disability, High Support Needs and Tourism. Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Management, 9 (1), 61-72.

Darcy, Simon, 2003. 1 in 5: Disability and Inclusive Academic Practice at UTS. University of Technology, Sydney.

Equal Opportunity Unit, 2005. Watch Your Language: Guidelines for Non-discriminatory Language. University of Melbourne: Melbourne.
Online source (opens an external site) (pdf, 36 pages)

Greater London Action on Disability, 2004. Writing about Disabled People Factsheet. London.
Online source (opens an external site)

Hodge, Bonnie M. & Preston-Sabin, Jennie (Eds), 1997. Accommodations, or Just Good Teaching? Strategies for Teaching College Students with Disabilities, Praeger Publishers, Westport CT.

Hughes, B., & Paterson, K., 1997. The Social Model of Disability and the Disappearing Body: Towards a Sociology of Impairment. Disability & Society, 12 (3), 325-340.

Hume, Joan, 1994. Media Guidelines, Disability Council of New South Wales: Sydney.
Online source (opens an external site)

Linton, S.,1998. Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity. New York: New York University Press.

Nothdurft, John, 1991. A Resource Book for the Employment of People with a Physical Disability in the NSW Public Sector, NSW Office of the Director of Equal Opportunity in Public Employment, Sydney.

Oliver, M., 1996. Understanding Disability: From Theory to Practice. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Reasonable Accommodations. Strategies for Teaching University Students with Disabilities, 1992. Macquarie University, University of New South Wales, University of Sydney and University of Technology, Sydney.

Tuller, David, 2002. Reporting Diversity Manual, Media Diversity Institute: London.

United Nations, 2007. Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities and the International Day for People with Disabilities New York United Nations.
Online source (opens an external site)

Universities Disabilities Cooperative Project, 1998. Interactions: A Guide to Assisting people with Disabilities. NSW Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs, Sydney.

Universities Disabilities Cooperative Project, 1999. Inclusive Practices for University Students with Disabilities: A Guide for Academic Staff, NSW Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs, Sydney.

See also the reference list provided in the University of Tasmania Student Services' online publication Inclusive Practice is Good Practice:
Online source (opens an external site)

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