This is an open letter to all media practitioners, especially editors, Members of Parliament (MPs) and state assemblymen (ADUNs), and ministers.
We thank those of you who have demonstrated support for 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, breaks barriers and exclusion, and does not reinforce stereotypes?
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 respectful and appropriate language is used is a blow to discrimination on the basis of disability.
Respectful and appropriate disability language also recognises 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 and appropriate disability language, and hope that this will translate into better media reporting and comments and statements made by ministers, MPs, and ADUNs.
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 patronising, 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, but 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 community||Inappropriate terminology to be avoided|
|Persons with disabilities or Disabled Persons|
Person with disability or disabled person
|Differently abled |
Special needs child/person
|Orang Kurang Upaya (OKU)||Orang Kelainan Upaya |
|Person with intellectual disabilityPerson with intellectual impairment||Retard, idiot, imbecile, moron|
Feeble-minded, mental defective
Mentally challenged / retarded / handicapped
|Person with a learning disability||Slow learner, stupid|
|Person with Down Syndrome||Mongoloid or Down|
|Deaf person and Hard-of-Hearing person|
Person with a hearing disability/impairment
|Deaf and dumb, deafie|
Person with visual impairment/disability
The visually impaired
|Person with autism|
Autistic person (if the person self-identifies this way)
Person on the autism spectrum
|Avoid adding any of the following: ”Low-functioning” or ‘high-functioning”, “mild”, “moderate” or “severe”|
|Person with ADHD||Hyper or hyperactive|
|Person with [type of impairment, e.g., epilepsy] or [medical condition, e.g., diabetes]||Epileptic child|
Bed-bound or bedridden
|Person with albinism||Albino|
|Person with cerebral palsy||Spastic|
|Persons with psychosocial disabilities|
Survivors and users of psychiatry / psychiatric services
|Crazy, loony, mental, insane|
Not of sound mind
|Persons with dementia|
Persons living with dementia
|Para sports / games|
|Handicapped sports, special sports|
Handicapped athlete, special athlete
|Little person, person of short stature||Midget, dwarf, stunted|
Person with a mobility impairment/disability
Person who uses a mobility device
|Wheelchair-bound, confined to a wheelchair|
|Person who has quadriplegia|
Person who has paraplegia
|Person who uses a communication device |
Person who uses an alternative method of communication
|Person or address the person by the person’s given name||Patient|
“Case”/ Case number
|Accessible parking |
Parking reserved for persons with disabilities
|Disabled/handicapped parking |
Handicapped friendly building
|Person with [type of impairment, e.g., epilepsy] or [medical condition, e.g., diabetes]||Epileptic child|
Bed-bound or bedridden
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.
- Dr. Amar-Singh HSS, person with dyslexia, child-disability activist, advisor for National Early Childhood Intervention Council (NECIC); Member, the OKU Rights Matter Project
- Yuenwah San, co-founder and 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)
- Ng Lai-Thin, care partner and project lead, National Early Childhood Intervention Council, and member, the OKU Rights Matter Project
- Meera Samanther, disability-gender activist, parent advocate, and committee member, Association of Women Lawyers (AWL)
- Anit Kaur Randhawa, member, the Harapan OKU Law Reform Group, vice president (legal), Medico Legal Society Malaysia (MLSM), Member, the OKU Rights Matter Project
- Nori Abdullah Badawi, owner, We Rock the Spectrum Gym for All Kids, chairman, Yayasan Budi Penyayang Malaysia, and parent advocate for neurodiversity and inclusion.
- Ras Adiba Radzi, president, Persatuan OKU Sentral, president, Persatuan Para Menembak Malaysia
- Bathmavathi Krishnan, president, Association of Women with Disabilities Malaysia
- Noor Aziah Mohd Awal, Suhakam
- Kaveinthran Palanthran, independent disabled human rights activist
- Dr Shyielathy Arumugam, special education teacher, Ministry of Education and parent advocate
- Beatrice Leong, autistic, filmmaker and founder of AIDA (Autism Inclusiveness Direct Action Group)
- Dr Ikmal Hisham Tah, senior law lecturer, UiTM, disability rights law researcher
- Dr Lim Tien Hong, chairperson, Department of Communication, Advocacy and Human Rights, Society of the Blind in Malaysia
- Edmund Lim, disability equity and inclusion activist for children, care partner, research officer, Persatuan WeCareJourney
- Dr. Alvin Ng Lai Oon, Professor of Psychology, Sunway University
- Mohamad Sazali Shaari, Persatuan Ibubapa dan Penjaga Anak Pekak Kuala Lumpur
- Our Journey, migrants and refugee rights advocate
- Centre for Independent Journalism
- Joan Sim Jo Jo, vice chairperson, Sarawak Society for the Deaf
- Desiree Kaur, founder, Project Haans, vice president, Kiwanis Club of TTDI
- Murugeswaran Veerasamy, president, Damai Disabled Person Association Malaysia
- Ai-Na Khor, disability activist and service provider, Asia Community Service
- Sha Roose, person with spinal muscular atrophy, disability activist
- END CSEC Network
- Malaysian Association of Sign Language Interpreter (MyASLI)
- Kemban Kolektif Consultancy – intersectionality of gender & disabilities
- Faiz Shuhaimi, president, Majlis Belia OKU Malaysia
- Annie Ong, president, National Organization of Malaysian Sign Language (NowBIM)
- Sharifah Tahir, care partner, Teepa Snow Positive Approach to Care Certified Independent Consultant and Trainer, founder, UniquelyMeInitiatives
- Make It Right Movement
- Elijah Irwin, officer, Malaysian Foundation for the Blind (MFB)
- Family Frontiers
- Prof Dr Toh Teck Hock, disabilities and 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
- Association of Women Lawyers (AWL)
- Mary Shanthi Dairiam, founding director, IWRAW Asia Pacific and dormer UN CEDAW committee member, human rights and equality advocate
- Leela Koran, linguist with an interest in disability-related issues
- Feilina Feisol, board member, National Autism Society of Malaysia (NASOM) and Ronald McDonald House of Charity (RMHC)
- Anthony Chong, co-founder and secretary, Malaysian Sign Language and Deaf Studies Association (MyBIM)
- Syed Azmi, PUAKPayong
- Siti Aishah Hassan Hasri, SPOT Community Project
- Tini Zainudin, child activist
- Maalini Ramalo, Development of Human Resources for Rural Areas (DHRRA), Malaysia
- Angie Heng, executive director, Kiwanis Down Syndrome Foundation
- Dr Ling How Kee, social work educator and disability rights supporter
- Dr Ramanathan Ramiah, chief executive officer, Yayasan Ipoh
- Dunstan Lim, chairperson, Sarawak OKU Skills Development Association (SOSDA)
- Dr Zahilah Filzah Zulkifli, co-founder, Doktorbudak and chairman, Malaysian Advocates for Child Health
- Dr Wong Woan Yiing, consultant paediatrician, committee member, Network for the Needs of Children with Disability Perak
- Childline Foundation
- Toy Libraries Malaysia
- Cathryn Anila, Vanguards4Change
- Dr Julia Lee, associate professor (education sciences), Universiti Malaysia Sarawak
- Anisa Ahmad, president, Persatuan Pengasuhan dan Perkembangan Awal Kanak- kanak Berdaftar Malaysia (PPBM)
- Ivy Josiah, women’s rights advocate
- ENGENDER Consultancy, a CSO advancing gender equality
- Malaysian Association of Social Workers
- Wong Hui Min, president, National Early Childhood Intervention Council, Malaysia
- Sin Tiew Cheo, chairman, SPICES Early Intervention Centre
- Izyan Nadiah Noh, special and inclusive education advocate
- Women’s Centre for Change (WCC)
- Sherrene Teh, music therapist, member, Malaysian Music Therapy Association, ELITE@UM Fellow 2023
- Tay Chia Yi, vice president, Malaysian Association of Speech – Language and Hearing (MASH)
- Aishah Diyana, clinical psychologist and caregiver to a person with dementia
- Prudence Lingham, speech therapist, parent, committee member, Persatuan CHILD Sabah
- Sivasangaran Kumaran, Rare Disease Advocate
- Alvin Teoh, National Family Support Group for Children and People with Special Needs
- Lee Yu Ying, behaviour analyst and co-founder, Shining Star Learning Hub
- Mary Chen, disability advocate, care partner
- Srividhya Ganapathy, person with ADHD, child rights activist, co-chairperson of CRIB Foundation
- Raaginee Shalesh, founder, Pusat Jagaan and Latihan Insan Istimewa IMC
- Mabel Gong Siew Choo, care partner
- Buku Jalanan Chow Kit
- Cikgu Rahayu, children education activist
- Goh Siu Lin, family and child rights lawyer
- Sharmila Sekaran, Voice of the Children
- Methodist Care Centre, Sarawak
- Lam Saw Yin, president, Special Olympics Malaysia
- Stella Chia Siew Chin, Pusat Jagaan Kanak kanak Ceria Murni
- Kong Lan Lee, director, Persuatuan Kanak-Kanak Istimewa Kajang Selangor
- Saiful Abdul Hamid, semi-caregiver for persons with disabilities
- Tan Kuan Aw, artist with multiple disabilities and disability rights activist
- Maizan Mohd Salleh, founder and president, Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Albinism Association
- Christine Lee, wheelchair user
- Vicky Chan, Harapan OKU member
- Hanizan Hussin, group founder, National Down Syndrome Association, Malaysia, advocate and activist of individual persons with Down Syndrome, chairperson, Persatuan Warga Sindrom Down Negeri Selangor and Pertubuhan Pemulihan Dalam Komuniti Sindrom Down
- Anita Abu Bakar, founder and president, Mental Illness Awareness and Support Association (MIASA), president, Persatuan Advokasi Kebangsaan Kesihatan Mental (NAMhA)
- Justice for Sisters
- Sisters in Islam
- Malaysia Federation of the Deaf
- Dr Choy Sook Kuen, founder, Oasis Place multidisciplinary intervention centre
- Nik Nadia Nik Mohd Yusoff, mother of two autistic girls
- Persatuan OKU Sentral
- Dr Hasnah Toran, chairman, Raudhah Autism
- Ahmad Daniel Sharani, deputy chairman, Persatuan OKU Sentral
- Nazmin Abdullah, chairman, Perlis Akreditasi Teens Center (PESTEC)
- Siti Khadijah Mohd Zamin, principal, Akademi Remaja Autisme Islam (ARISMA)
- Noradilah Abdullah, Nur Kidz Center
- Fakhruddin Zakaria, president, Persatuan Pembangunan Orang Kurang Upaya Anggota Terengganu (POKUAT)
- Prof Dr Ruzita Mohd Amin, head, Disability Services Unit, IIUM
- Mohd Rizal Mat Noor, chairman, Persatuan Advokasi Kecederaan Saraf Tunjang Malaysia (MASAA)
- Zamri Mansor, chairperson, Persatuan Pengguna Kerusi Roda Malaysia (PPKRM)
- Ch’ng B’ao Zhong, autistic, licensed and registered counsellor, psychology officer (counselling), Ministry of Health
- This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of CodeBlue.