Open dictionary with words and meanings

Using Respectful and Appropriate Disability Language

This is an open letter to all media practitioners, especially editors, Members of Parliament (MPs) and State Assemblies (ADUNs), and Ministers. We thank those of you who have demonstrated support of persons with disabilities. With Malaysia’s aspiration to be a developed nation, it is time to consider the use of inappropriate language for referring to persons with disabilities and disability-related matters. How do we use terminology that shapes behaviour, to break barriers and exclusion? Not reinforce those.

This open letter was initiated by Dato’ Dr. Amar-Singh HSS, person with dyslexia, child-disability activist, Advisor for National Early Childhood Intervention Council (NECIC); Member, The OKU Rights Matter Project. The following content is published as received. Also available here.

This is an open letter to all media practitioners, especially editors, Members of Parliament (MPs) and State Assemblies (ADUNs), and Ministers. We thank those of you who have demonstrated support of persons with disabilities. With Malaysia’s aspiration to be a developed nation, it is time to consider the use of inappropriate language for referring to persons with disabilities and disability-related matters. How do we use terminology that shapes behaviour, to break barriers and exclusion? Not reinforce those.

Respectful and appropriate disability language in communication acknowledges the dignity and celebrates the diversity of persons with disabilities. It does not reinforce negative stereotyping and derogatory labels that connote pity and lesser value. Each time that respectful and appropriate language is used is a blow to discrimination on the basis of disability.

Respectful and appropriate disability language also recognizes that disability is not the defining characteristic of a person, but rather one aspect of individual identity and experience.

We would like to share some general principles of respectful / appropriate disability language and hope that this will translate into better media reporting and comments / statements made by Ministers, MPs and ADUNs.

Assorted colourful alphabets

First, it is important to respect the preferences and choices of persons with disabilities regarding how to be referred to. When in doubt, just ask the person with disability.

Second, please avoid euphemisms or terms that are patronizing, offensive or inaccurate. For example, do not use terms such as “special needs”, “differently abled”, “handicapped”, or “mentally retarded.” These terms imply that disability is something to be ashamed of, to be hidden or avoided. It reinforces the medical model that views disability as “an anomaly” to be medically “fixed” and persons with disabilities as “damaged” and “incomplete.” Instead, acknowledge the centrality of the person (see table below) and use clear and respectful terms, such as “disability”, “accessibility”, “accommodation”, or “inclusion”.

One common incorrect reference to the non-disabled population is “normal” or “healthy.” This reinforces the wrong view that persons with disabilities (the OKU community) is somehow “abnormal” or “unhealthy.” It is best to use “non-disabled” in place of “normal” or “healthy”. And use “neurotypical” instead of “of sound mind.” 

Third, avoid terms that underscore a “victim” attitude towards disability, such as “suffering from”, “afflicted with”, “confined to”, or “incapacitated by.” These terms perpetrate outdated views that disability is a burden, a tragedy and a source of pity. Instead, use neutral or positive terms, such as “living with”, “experiencing” or “has.”

Some persons may prefer identity-first language, such as “Autistic person” or “Deaf person”, rather than person-first language, e.g., “person with autism.”

The table below offers suggested terms to use and words to avoid for some common disabilities; it is not exhaustive. It lists some suggested terms in accordance with international good practice – see the 2022 United Nations Disability-Inclusive Communications Guidelines.

Terminology that dignifies persons with disabilities and the OKU communityInappropriate terminology to be avoided
Persons with disabilities or Disabled Persons Person with disability or disabled personDifferently abled Special needs child/person Special person
Orang Kurang Upaya (OKU)Orang Kelainan Upaya Kanak-kanak Istimewa Cacat
Person with intellectual disability Person with intellectual impairmentRetard, idiot, imbecile, moron, Feeble-minded, mental defective Mentally challenged / retarded / handicapped
Person with a learning disability Slow learner, stupid
Person with Down SyndromeMongoloid or Down
Deaf person and Hard-of-Hearing person Person with a hearing disability/impairmentDeaf and dumb, deafie Deaf-mute Hearing Impaired
Blind person, Low-Vision person Person with visual impairment/disability Deafblind personThe blind The visually impaired
Person with autism Autistic person (if the person self-identifies this way) Neurodiverse person Person on the autism spectrumAvoid adding any of the following: ”low-functioning” or ‘high-functioning”; “mild”, “moderate” or “severe”
Person with ADHDHyper or hyperactive
Person with [type of impairment, e.g., epilepsy] or [medical condition, e.g., diabetes]    Epileptic child Diabetic Bed-bound or bed-ridden
Person with albinismAlbino
Person with cerebral palsySpastic Crippled
Persons with psychosocial disabilities Survivors and users of psychiatry / psychiatric servicesCrazy, loony, mental, insane Psycho, deranged Not of sound mind
Persons with dementia Persons living with dementiaDemented, senile Nyanyuk
Para sports / games Para athlete   Handicapped sports, special sports Handicapped athlete, special athlete
Little person, person of short statureMidget, dwarf, stunted
Wheelchair-user Person with a mobility impairment/disability Person who uses a mobility device  Wheelchair-bound, confined to a wheelchair Physically challenged Handicapped
Person who has quadriplegia Person who has paraplegiaQuad Paraplegic
Person who uses a communication device Person who uses an alternative method of communicationNon-verbal Mute
Person or address the person by the person’s given namePatient “Case”/ Case number
Accessible parking Parking reserved for persons with disabilities Accessible bathroom Accessible/disability-inclusive buildingDisabled/handicapped parking Handicapped bathroom Handicapped friendly building  
Person with [type of impairment, e.g., epilepsy] or [medical condition, e.g., diabetes]Epileptic child Diabetic Bed-bound / bed-ridden
Choose your words

Language is constantly evolving. The change happens as disabled persons change, as do community understanding of our relationships, rights, place in society and aspirations for the future.

The key is to remain respectful of each other, as we work towards ensuring that everyone’s place in society is enabled and we grow as an inclusive society. Using respectful and appropriate language empowers the individual and the community. It is time that we as a nation change our use of demeaning terminology, to respect persons with disabilities. Let’s remember this: disability does not limit a person; it is the inaccessible environment that stops progress. And, our choice of language shapes that environment.


  1. Dato’ Dr. Amar-Singh HSS, person with dyslexia, child-disability activist, Advisor for National Early Childhood Intervention Council (NECIC); Member, The OKU Rights Matter Project
  2. Yuenwah San, Co-Founder-Member, The OKU Rights Matter Project; Member, Harapan OKU Law Reform Group; disability rights activist-care partner; and Honorary Senior Advisor (Disability Inclusion), Social Development Division, United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP)
  3. Ng Lai-Thin, care partner, and Project Lead, National Early Childhood Intervention Council; and Member, The OKU Rights Matter Project
  4. Meera Samanther, disability-gender activist, parent advocate, and Committee Member, Association of Women Lawyers (AWL)
  5. Anit Kaur Randhawa, Member of the Harapan OKU Law Reform Group; Vice President (Legal), Medico Legal Society Malaysia (MLSM); Member, The OKU Rights Matter Project
  6. Nori Abdullah Badawi, owner of We Rock the Spectrum Gym for All Kids, Chairman of Yayasan Budi Penyayang Malaysia and parent advocate for neurodiversity and inclusion
  7. Senator (R) Datuk (Dr.) Ras Adiba Radzi, President Persatuan OKU Sentral; and President Persatuan Para Menembak Malaysia
  8. Bathmavathi Krishnan, President, Association of Women with Disabilities Malaysia
  9. Noor Aziah Mohd Awal, Suhakam
  10. Kaveinthran Palanthran, Independent Disabled Human Rights Activist
  11. Dr. Shyielathy Arumugam, Special Education Teacher, MOE & Parent Advocate
  12. Beatrice Leong, autistic, filmmaker and founder of AIDA (Autism Inclusiveness Direct Action Group)
  13. Dr. Ikmal Hisham Md. Tah, Senior Law Lecturer UiTM/ Disability Rights Law Researcher
  14. Dr. Lim Tien Hong, Chairperson Department of Communication, Advocacy & Human Right, Society of the Blind in Malaysia
  15. Edmund Lim, disability equity and inclusion activist for children, care partner, Research Officer, Persatuan WeCareJourney
  16. Dr. Alvin Ng Lai Oon, Professor of Psychology, Sunway University
  17. Mohamad Sazali Shaari, Persatuan Ibubapa dan Penjaga Anak Pekak Kuala Lumpur
  18. Our Journey, migrants and refugee rights advocate
  19. Centre for Independent Journalism
  20. Joan Sim Jo Jo, Vice Chairperson, Sarawak Society for the Deaf
  21. Desiree Kaur, Founder of Project Haans; Vice President of Kiwanis Club of TTDI
  22. Murugeswaran Veerasamy, President Damai Disabled Person Associatian Malaysia
  23. Ai-Na Khor, disability activist and service provider, Asia Community Service
  24. Sha Roose, person with Spinal Muscular Atrophy, disability activist
  25. END CSEC Network
  26. Malaysian Association of Sign Language Interpreter (MyASLI)
  27. Kemban Kolektif Consultancy – intersectionality of gender & disabilities
  28. Faiz Shuhaimi, President, Majlis Belia OKU Malaysia
  29. Annie Ong, President, National Organization of Malaysian Sign Language (NowBIM)
  30. Sharifah Tahir, care partner, Teepa Snow Positive Approach to Care Certified Independent Consultant and Trainer, Founder of UniquelyMeInitiatives
  31. Make It Right Movement
  32. Elijah Irwin, Officer, Malaysian Foundation for The Blind (MFB)
  33. Family Frontiers
  34. Prof Dr Toh Teck Hock, Disabilities & Child Health Activist; Vice President, National Early Childhood Intervention Council (NECIC) Malaysia; Global Medical Advisory Committee Member, Special Olympics Inc.; Consultant Paediatrician and Clinical Researcher
  35. Association of Women Lawyers (AWL)
  36. Mary Shanthi Dairiam, Founding Director, IWRAW Asia Pacific and Former UN CEDAW Committee Member, Human Rights and Equality Advocate
  37. Leela Koran, PhD. Linguist with an interest in disability-related issues
  38. Feilina Feisol, Board Member of National Autism Society of Malaysia (NASOM) and Ronald McDonald House of Charity (RMHC)
  39. Anthony Chong, Co-Founder-Secretary, Malaysian Sign Language and Deaf Studies Association (MyBIM)
  40. Syed Azmi, PUAKPayong
  41. Siti Aishah Hassan Hasri, SPOT Community Project
  42. Tini Zainudin, Child activist
  43. Maalini Ramalo, Development of Human Resources for Rural Areas (DHRRA), Malaysia
  44. Angie Heng, Executive Director, Kiwanis Down Syndrome Foundation
  45. Dr. Ling How Kee, Social work educator and disability rights supporter
  46. Dato Dr Ramanathan, CEO YAYASAN IPOH
  47. Dunstan Lim, Chairperson, Sarawak OKU Skills Development Association (SOSDA)
  48. Dr. Zahilah Filzah Zulkifli, co-founder of doktorbudak and Chairman of Malaysian Advocates for Child Health
  49. Dr Wong Woan Yiing, Consultant Paediatrician, committee member, Network for the Needs of Children with Disability Perak
  50. Childline Foundation
  51. Toy Libraries Malaysia
  52. Cathryn Anila, Vanguards4Change
  53. Dr Julia Lee, Associate Professor (Education Sciences), Universiti Malaysia Sarawak
  54. Anisa Ahmad, President Persatuan Pengasuhan dan Perkembangan Awal Kanak- kanak Berdaftar Malaysia (PPBM)
  55. Ivy Josiah, Women’s Rights Advocate
  56. ENGENDER Consultancy, a CSO advancing gender equality
  57. Malaysian Association of Social Workers
  58. NGOhub
  59. Wong Hui Min, President, National Early Childhood Intervention Council, Malaysia
  60. Sin Tiew Cheo, Chairman, SPICES Early Intervention Centre
  61. Izyan Nadiah Md Noh, Special and Inclusive Education Advocate
  62. Women’s Centre for Change (WCC)
  63. Sherrene Teh, Registered Music Therapist, member of the Malaysian Music Therapy Association, ELITE@UM Fellow 2023
  64. Tay Chia Yi, Vice President, Malaysian Association of Speech-language & Hearing (MASH)
  65. Aishah Diyana, Clinical Psychologist and caregiver to a person with dementia
  66. Prudence Lingham, speech therapist, parent, committee member, Persatuan CHILD Sabah
  67. Sivasangaran Kumaran, Rare Disease Advocate
  68. Alvin Teoh, National Family Support Group for Children and People with Special Needs
  69. Lee Yu Ying, Behaviour Analyst and Co-Founder of Shining Star Learning Hub
  70. Mary Chen, disability advocate, care partner
  71. Srividhya Ganapathy, person with ADHD, child rights activist, co-chairperson of CRIB Foundation
  72. Raaginee Shalesh, founder of Pusat Jagaan & Latihan Insan Istimewa IMC
  73. Mabel Gong Siew Choo, care partner
  74. Buku Jalanan Chow Kit
  75. Cikgu Rahayu, children education activist
  76. Goh Siu Lin, Family & Child Rights Lawyer
  77. Sharmila Sekaran, Voice of the Children
  78. Methodist Care Centre, Sarawak
  79. Ms Lam Saw Yin, President, Special Olympics Malaysia
  80. Stella Chia Siew Chin, Pusat Jagaan Kanak kanak Ceria Murni
  81. Kong Lan Lee, Director, Persuatuan Kanak-Kanak Istimewa Kajang Selangor
  82. Saiful Abdul Hamid, a semi-caregiver for PWD and an avid lifelong learner
  83. Tan Kuan Aw, artist with multiple disabilities and disability rights activist
  84. Maizan binti Mohd Salleh, Founder & President of the Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Albinism Association
  85. Christine Lee, wheelchair user
  86. Vicky Chan, Harapan OKU Member
  87. Hanizan Hussin, Group Founder of the National Down Syndrome Association, Malaysia; advocate / activist of individual person with Down Syndrome; Pengerusi, Persatuan Warga Sindrom Down Negeri Selangor, dan Pertubuhan Pemulihan Dalam Komuniti Sindrom Down
  88. Anita Abu Bakar, Founder and President of the Mental Illness Awareness & Support Association (MIASA), President Persatuan Advokasi Kebangsaan Kesihatan Mental (NAMhA)
  89. Sisters in Islam
  90. Malaysia Federation of the Deaf
  91. Dr Choy Sook Kuen, founder Oasis Place multidisciplinary intervention centre
  92. Nik Nadia Binti Nik Mohd Yusoff – Mother of 2 autistic girls
  93. Persatuan OKU Sentral
  94. Dr Hasnah Toran, chairman, Raudhah Autism
  95. Ahmad Daniel Sharani, deputy chairman, Persatuan OKU Sentral
  96. Nazmin Abdullah, chairman, Perlis Akreditasi Teens Center (PESTEC)
  97. Siti Khadijah Mohd Zamin, principal, Akademi Remaja Autisme Islam (ARISMA)
  98. Noradilah Abdullah, Nur Kidz Center
  99. Fakhruddin Zakaria, president, Persatuan Pembangunan Orang Kurang Upaya Anggota Terengganu (POKUAT)
  100. Prof Dr Ruzita Mohd Amin, head, Disability Services Unit, IIUM
  101. Mohd Rizal Mat Noor, chairman, Persatuan Advokasi Kecederaan Saraf Tunjang Malaysia (MASAA)
  102. Zamri Mansor, chairperson, Persatuan Pengguna Kerusi Roda Malaysia (PPKRM)
  103. Ch’ng B’ao Zhong, autistic, licensed and registered counsellor, psychology officer (counselling), Ministry of Health
  104. Dr. Naziaty Mohd Yaacob, Member (2008-2012), National Council of Persons with Disabilities Malaysia; Associate Professor Universiti Malaya (retired)