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Discussing Developmental Disabilities

Dear Visitors:

Each profession has its unique language. Developmental disabilities services are no exception. It is critical, however, that people we serve, families and the staff of Developmental Disabilities Resource Center (DDRC) communicate openly, often and understandably. We at DDRC occasionally use terms that may not be clear to others. It is an issue we are constantly working to correct. We strive to avoid such jargon, but to promote clear communication we have prepared a glossary of frequently used terms.

We have updated our glossary eight times since it first appeared in 1979. The latest version includes terms related to the application of principles of self-determination and others reflecting Medicaid revisions. We also have added specific definitions from the Colorado statutes and regulations relating to developmental disabilities. We hope you find this edition helpful.

Words With Dignity

A key for discussing disabilities is to remember you are dealing with people first, any disability is secondary. A disability is one part of a person just as other attributes are not the whole that makes a person unique. We would not introduce Bob as the person who has red hair; it's not necessary to discuss an individual's disability unless it is relevant to a conversation.

When the use of descriptive terminology is relevant to the situation, remember the guideline of "people first." Individuals are not the developmentally disabled, they are persons with developmental disabilities; refer to a person with cerebral palsy rather than a cerebral palsied individual.

Try to avoid using the following words or phrases as primary identification:

  • Mentally deficient, dumb, crippled, victim, spastic, afflicted with, maimed, challenged
  • Patient, unless the person is in a hospital
  • Confined to a wheelchair, braces


  • developmental delay
  • uses a wheelchair
  • has quadriplegia (paralysis of both arms and legs)
  • congenital disability
  • with Down Syndrome
  • has a learning disability
  • without speech
  • disabled

Instead of...

  • slow
  • confined to a wheelchair
  • quadriplegic
  • birth defect
  • mongoloid
  • is learning disabled
  • mute
  • handicapped

Better yet...
The best solution is to avoid any label!

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