Disabilities, disorders, and other health conditions

When and how to mention someone’s health

Background:

Unnecessary mentions of a person’s disease, disability, or other health condition may introduce bias. In addition, because there is a broad range of disabilities, diseases, and mental illnesses, if it is necessary to disclose someone’s health, saying someone has “a mental illness” or “a disability” does not give much information.

Recommendation:

Mention a person’s disability, disorder, disease, or other health condition only when it is relevant and when there is a medical diagnosis. If it is necessary, specify the condition or symptoms. Do not use outdated terms.

Examples:

Use:

The postdoctoral fellow, who has Parkinson’s disease, uses automated lab equipment to help her run experiments.

Avoid:

who has a disability

Use:

“While in graduate school, Alicia Wooten, a Deaf biology professor at Gallaudet and one of the cocreators of the ASL science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) site Atomic Hands, didn’t have an interpreter in her lab” (C&EN, July 11, 2021). (It’s appropriate to mention she is Deaf because the sentence is about the lack of an interpreter. Also see “Capitalization of health conditions” for when to capitalize “deaf.”)

Use:

“ ‘I always had an interest in how the body protects itself,’ says Alicia Wooten, ’11. ‘The thing I love about immunology is that it is always evolving’ ” (Rochester Institute of Technology, July 23, 2019.) (It’s not necessary to mention she is Deaf because that is not necessary to understand the sentence.)

Use:

people with intellectual disabilities

Avoid:

the mentally retarded


People-first language and identity-first language

Background:

People-first language puts the person first, with wording like “person with” (e.g., “person with autism”), while identity-first language puts the condition first (e.g., “autistic person”). Proponents of people-first language believe that naming the person first emphasizes that someone’s disability, disease, or disorder does not define them. Proponents of identity-first language believe that a health condition is integral to their identity and that using phrases such as “person with” perpetuates the belief that disabilities are shameful. Individuals have different preferences. Some groups, such as the autism community and the Deaf community, have been outspoken about preferring identity-first language. When discussing mental health, people-first language is generally preferred.

Recommendation:

Ask people how they would like to be described, and respect that choice. If you cannot determine someone’s preference, generally use the language that most people with the condition prefer (e.g., consult official organizations representing people with a condition). If you can’t determine a preference, use people-first language. Avoid equating people with a condition (e.g., use “she has epilepsy,” not “she is epileptic”), and avoid using condition-related adjectives as nouns to refer to people (see “Avoid labeling people by a characteristic”).

Examples:

Use:

people with alcoholism

Avoid:

alcoholic people, alcoholics

Use:

people with diabetes

Avoid:

diabetic people, diabetics

Use:

people with disabilities, the disability community

Avoid:

the disabled

Use:

people with opioid addiction, people addicted to opioids

Avoid:

opioid addicts


Capitalization of health conditions

Background:

For most diseases, disabilities, and disorders, only proper names, as in a person’s name, are capitalized. An exception is the word "deaf," which is commonly capitalized when it refers to the cultural group of Deaf people (and members of that group) who share a sign language, traditions, and customs. People who don’t identify with the Deaf community use the lowercase word, which is also used to refer to deafness as an audiological condition. Although AP style uses lowercase “deaf” for individuals, the National Center on Disability and Journalism recommends differentiating between “deaf” and “Deaf.”

Recommendation:

In general, follow a standard dictionary for the capitalization of disabilities, diseases, and disorders. For the word “deaf,” capitalize it when referring to Deaf culture, the Deaf community, or people who identify as Deaf with a capital “D.” Lowercase when referring to people who use lowercase “deaf” or when referring to the audiological condition.

Examples:

Use:

Alzheimer’s disease

Avoid:

Alzheimer’s Disease

Use:

bipolar disorder

Avoid:

Bipolar Disorder


Neutral language for disabilities, disorders, and diseases

Background:

Phrases like “suffers from,” “is afflicted with,” “is a victim of,” and “is stricken with” in reference to people with disabilities, diseases, or disorders connote pity and helplessness and imply a person has a reduced quality of life. In addition to the connotation of helplessness with “victim,” the word is problematic because it’s unclear whether the person died. When phrases like these are used to describe disability, they create an ableist narrative—one that assumes people with disabilities are worth less than nondisabled people. (See also “Avoid euphemisms related to disability,” “Avoid metaphorical uses of disability-related terms,” and “Avoid using disability-related terms to describe something negative.”)

Militaristic terms like “battle” in reference to health imply that if someone fights hard enough, they can overcome a health condition, and those that died, or “lost their battle,” weren’t strong enough to survive. Individuals have different preferences regarding the term “survivor.” Some people feel that it is empowering, whereas others do not identify with the term and find it offensive or misleading. The term is also imprecise. For example, the National Cancer Institute says, “In cancer, a person is considered to be a survivor from the time of diagnosis until the end of life.” But many people tend to use the term to refer to people who have completed treatment.

Recommendation:

When describing a health condition, use neutral terms like “with” or “has” instead of terms that connote pity or imply a person has a reduced quality of life. Use "uses" or another neutral word to describe the use of assistive devices. Also avoid martial terms to refer to having a disease, and use caution with the term “survivor.”

Examples:

Use:

She has cancer.

Avoid:

suffers from cancer

Use:

He has an immune disorder.

Avoid:

is a victim of an immune disorder

Use:

She uses a wheelchair.

Avoid:

is wheelchair bound

Use:

He died of heart disease.

Avoid:

lost his battle with heart disease





Person versus patient

Background:

Calling people “patients” when their role receiving a diagnosis, treatment, or other medical service isn’t important can dehumanize people and emphasize the disability or disease instead of the person. Not all people with disabilities or diseases are patients, so the term can be inaccurate (for example, many people with depression do not receive treatment). In addition, conflating disability with illness or disease can be inaccurate, as many people with disabilities are healthy.

Recommendation:

When a person’s role as a patient is not relevant, generally use the word “person” instead of “patient.” But when discussing health issues in a medical context, such as describing diagnosis and treatment, “patient” is acceptable.

Examples:

Use:

People with phenylketonuria have to carefully monitor how much protein they eat each day.

Avoid:

Patients with phenylketonuria

Use:

Five hundred lung cancer patients received the experimental treatment. (OK because their role as patients is relevant. But it would also be OK to say, “Five hundred people with lung cancer.”)


Drug use

Background:

“Abuse” has connotations of crime and violence. The phrase “drug abuse” carries a stigma and tends to trigger negative judgments in people.

Recommendation:

Use caution when using the term “abuse” to describe drug use. Instead, use “misuse” or an adjective plus “use,” such as “excessive use” or “heavy use,” depending on the meaning.

Example:

Use:

“That hard shift to abuse-deterrent OxyContin on Aug. 9, 2010, gave researchers a clear starting point for studying whether tamper-resistant formulations could attenuate opioid misuse” (C&EN, Nov. 13, 2017).

Avoid:

opioid abuse


Resources on inclusive language for health