Guide to inclusive language in sport for people with disability

Guide to inclusive language in sport for people with disability

Language reflects and shapes the way we view the world. The words we use can influence community attitudes in a positive or negative way and can impact on the lives of others.

In this post we will explore what inclusive language is and some sport specific terms you might find useful. At the end of the post you can download a handy one page resource to share around your club or sport organisation.

What you will learn:

  • How to define disability in sporting contexts
  • Tips for inclusive language
  • Sport specific terminology in sport for people with disability

How we write and speak about people with disability can have a profound effect on the way they are viewed by the community. Some words, by their very nature, degrade and diminish people with disabilities. Others perpetuate inaccurate stereotypes, removing entirely a person’s individuality and humanity. These words end up being used as labels to separate, segregate and limit those people.

This labelling influences our perceptions by focusing only on one aspect of a person, their disability, and ignores their other roles and attributes. For example, they may also be a parent, a teacher, a musician or an athlete.

Defining disability

To date there is mixed understanding of disability and indeed how to best define and talk about it within the context of sport. According to the World Health Organisation disability is used as an umbrella term, covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. So what does that all mean? Here's a quick summary:

  • Impairment is a problem in body function or structure
  • Activity limitation is a difficulty encountered by an individual in executing a task or action
  • Participation restriction is a problem experienced by an individual in involvement in life situations

Disability then, rather than just being an indicator of a health problem, is part of a person’s life experience. It encompasses physical and functional attributes of a person’s body as well as interactions with society, including interactions within sport settings.

A key underpinning principle related to all this is the Social Model of disability. The social model of disability states that a person is disabled by factors that are external to them. Things like societal attitudes, environments, policies and cultures that limit, separate and diminish a person with a disability. In simple terms people are not disabled by their health condition but rather by a world that has not been designed or does not cater for them.

Applying the social model approach to language leads us away from focusing on a person's diagnosis or health condition (and a focus on limitations) and towards acknowledging a person's whole life experience (and focusing on who a person is, what they enjoy, value and contribute).

Your rule of thumb

All of this boils down to a very simple rule of thumb...

Put people first. Always acknowledge the person before their disability.

General Guidelines

Here are some additional guidelines that you can refer to.

Avoid defining a person by their disability. We are all individuals with abilities, desires, interests and problems – some of us happen to have an impairment, limitation or restriction.

Avoid focussing unnecessarily on a person’s disability. If it is not necessary to acknowledge that a person has a disability, then don’t mention it.

If it is appropriate to talk about a person’s disability, be specific about their circumstances Avoid stereotypes, generalisations and assumptions based on limited information.

Portray people with disabilities positively by recognising what a person can do rather than focussing on their limitations and avoid language that makes people with disability out to be victims or objects of pity. For example, say the person was “born with Down syndrome”, rather than, the person “suffers from Down syndrome”.

Avoid portraying a person with disability as inspirational simply because they live with disability. Implying a person is courageous or superhuman for doing everyday things is patronising and sets unreasonable expectations.

Recognise that many of the difficulties facing people with a disability are barriers created by community attitudes and the physical environment. We can all help to break down these barriers by using appropriate language – to be labelled in a derogatory way serves only to perpetuate these barriers.

Avoid any word or phrase that has a negative connotation or that implies people with a disability are suffering – for example, ‘confined to a wheelchair’ instead of ‘uses a wheelchair’.

Avoid labels, euphemisms and made up words. Put the person first and be specific. Try to avoid things like “Differently abled”, “disAbility”, “special needs”, “all abilities” etc. While these are usually intended to be positive they can end up further reinforcing difference or make people with disability out to be inspiration or specials simply for experience disability.

RELAX! Most importantly don’t get too caught up in semantics and political correctness. Don’t be so afraid of saying something wrong that you say nothing at all. Listen to how people talk about themselves and stick to the rule of thumb – put the person first.

Now, if you need some more specific examples here are some words to avoid and words to use instead. The lists below is not exhaustive but it will give you an idea of how to put the guidelines above into action.




Cripple or crippled

Mentally retarded

Put the person first and specify the support need or impairment, for example:

  • a person who walks with a mobility aid
  • a person with cerebral palsy
  • a person with intellectual impairment

Defect (as in birth defects, congenital defect)

Say the ‘person with a disability since birth’, ‘person with a congenital impairment’.



Suffer or suffering from

Afflicted with

Disease or illness


Vegetative or invalid

Not all people with disability are unwell or suffering. Most people lead happy, healthy lives. Put the person first and be specific, for example say:

  • a person with Down syndrome
  • a person with a physical impairment

Patient is usually OK when referring to a doctor/patient relationship.


Person who is of short stature.


Person with paraplegia.


Person with epilepsy.

Fit, attack or spell


Brain damaged

Person with an acquired brain injury.

Disabled or handicapped

Generally avoid these words. However it may be appropriate if referring to a societal barrier a person faces. For example:

  • a person is disabled by a lack of access

Insane, lunatic, maniac, mental patients, neurotic, psycho, psychotic,  schizophrenic, unsound mind, crazy, mad

Put the person first and be specific. For example say:

  • a person with a psychiatric or mental illness

Terms beginning with ‘the’, such as ‘the disabled’ or ‘the blind’

Put the person first and be specific, for example,

  • people with physical impairment
  • people who are blind or have a vision impairment

Cerebral palsy sufferer

Person with cerebral palsy.

Confined to a wheelchair; wheelchair-bound

Wheelchairs and other mobility aides provide freedom and independence to people with physical impairment. Plus, some people don't use their chair or aides all the time. For example say:

  • ... is a wheelchair user
  • ... uses a wheelchair

Disabled toilets/parking

Accessible toilets/parking.

What about language in sport?

Defining disability presents a bit of a challenge in a sport setting, especially in competitive sport. In most cases there is no need to even talk about a person's impairment or health condition. We can simply refer to people with disabilities in the same way we do for everyone else. If they are an athlete they are just that an athlete, a coach is a coach a volunteer is a volunteer.

However, things like rules, regulations and some roles in sport will influence if and how a person might identify and be spoken about. Especially in competitive sport. That means in some cases we do need to use some key terms that help with the organisation of sport for people with disabilities. So here are a list of common and accepted terms you might come across or would like to use in a sport setting.

Specific terminology in sport for people with disability

Athlete with Disability (AWD)

General term that refers to a person with disability who takes part in organised sport.


Refers to the system of grouping athletes based on the impact of impairment.


Representative at Deaflympic Games.

Eligibility Criteria

Requirements under which athletes are evaluated for Classification.


Process of determining if an athlete meets eligibility criteria for Classification.

Multi Class (MC)

Competition format where by athletes of different classifications compete in the same sport race or event. (Formerly Multi Disability)

Multi Class Athlete

Classified athlete who competes in Multi Class competition. (Use this instead of AWD)




Para-rower etc

Only used for athletes in Paralympic classifications in Paralympic competition, usually at a high level.


Representative at Paralympic Games.


So in the end if you stick to the general guidelines and apply the rule of thumb (putting people first) you will be OK when it comes to saying the right things.

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What do you think about inclusive language in sport? What are some words you use or avoid? What are some sport specific terms you use? Share in the comments!

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