Knowledgebase: General FAQ
What kind of language should we use?
Posted by Katie MacDonald on 01 September 2009 09:14 AM

Special Olympics Ontario has a set guideline on what language is appropriate and inappropriate when speaking to/about an individual with an intellectual disability.

'Person first' terminology demonstrates respect for the individual first. The individual ultimately comes before the disability and is not defined by the disability.

The following language guidelines have been developed for individuals writing or speaking about persons with disabilities. The purpose of the language guideline is to ensure that all people are portrayed with individuality, dignity and respect.


Intellectual disability is an adjective, and is just one of many that might be used to describe someone.


DO use the preferred language:

- A person with an intellectual disability,

- Individuals, persons, or people with intellectual disabilities

- John Smith, who has an intellectual disability

- Families of persons with intellectual disabilities


DO distinguish between adults and children with an intellectual disability (ex. use the words 'adult' or 'child', or the words 'older' or 'younger' athletes)

DO refer to participants in Special Olympics as athletes. The word should never appear in quotation marks (ex. when you're writing or speaking about an athlete with an intellectual disability, never write or use hand signals to express "athlete")

DO refer to persons with disabilities in the same style as persons without disabilities: full name on first reference and last name on subsequent references. Avoid references to an individual with down syndrome as “Bill”, and use the journalistically correct “Bill Smith”. Avoid the use of childlike terms or nicknames unless you have received permission by the individual to do so.

DO use the following correct terminology:

- a person has an intellectual disability, rather than is suffering from, afflicted with, or a victim of intellectual retardation

- a person has Down syndrome (Note the correct and singular term ‘Down syndrome’ instead of "down’s syndrome", never use the term "down’s" or "mongoloid" (or mongoloidism))

 - a person has a learning disability, and is not a learning disabled person; a person may use a wheelchair, but is not confined or restricted to a wheelchair

- a person has a physical disability, and is not a physically challenged person; a person is visually impaired or blind; rather than a sight impaired person

- a person is hearing impaired or deaf; rather than a hearing impaired or deaf person. (The term 'deaf mute' is used when an individual is deaf and does not speak verbally)

- a person has a seizure disorder or epilepsy; rather than is an epileptic; a person has a seizure rather than a 'fit'

DO use the correct term when describing Special Olympics Ontario and the use of the acronym SOO rather than using the previous title of 'Ontario Special Olympics (OSO)'. Describe communities as Special Olympics Ontario – community-xxx, rather than xxx-community Special Olympics.

DO use the words “Special Olympics Ontario Provincial Office” rather than the term “Head Office” when referring to the Provincial Administration to describe the Provincial office in Toronto.


DO NOT preface Special Olympics with the word “the”. This implies that Special Olympics is a one-time, singular event, rather than an ongoing all year sports training program.

DO NOT use the word “kids” when referring to Special Olympics athletes. Adult athletes are an integral part of the program.

DO NOT use the adjective “unfortunate” when talking about persons with an intellectual disability.

DO NOT sensationalize the accomplishments of people with an intellectual disability as heroic or brave. While these accomplishments should be recognized and applauded, disability rights advocates encourage all individuals to avoid referring to achievements in ways which reinforce and perpetuate the stigma of disability.

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