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The Power of Words

People with disabilities are part of the landscape in a diverse America. There are more than 54 million Americans with disabilities and many are your neighbors, friends, classmates, family members and co-workers. There can be physical or mental disabilities and some may have both types. People with disabilities are PEOPLE first. Yes, they have disabilities but those disabilities don't define the person. There have been many changes in laws and public policies, attitudes and opportunities for people with disabilities over the years that have helped with employment and allowing them to live in their communities like many that are not disabled.

Language is a powerful tool in our world and often negative attitudes are the greatest barrier for people with disabilities to overcome. The following are some good and powerful words that will help when speaking about people with disabilities.

1. Always use people-first language. Refer to the person first and not his or her disability. Do not say "a disabled person." Instead, refer to "a person with a disability."

2. Never group individuals together as "the mentally retarded", which puts the focus on the disability and not on the individual.

3. Avoid emotional and sensational words. People with disabilities are often either thought of as inspirational and courageous or pitiful and in need of charity. Both extremes are erroneous stereotypes.

Be sensitive when choosing words. The reality is that people with disabilities succeed not "in spite of" their disabilities but "in spite of" an inaccessible and discriminatory society. They do not "overcome" their disabilities so much as "overcome" prejudice. You can help erase such stigma by helping to use nonjudgmental terms and phrases that portray images of dignity and respect. By working together to create positive attitudes toward people with disabilities, both mental and physical, we can create a better society. That is a positive step for everyone.

For more information you may contact the National Mental Health America Office at 1-800-969-6642 or log onto

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