Paralympics 2012: How to report disability sport and the Paralympic Games

Swimmer Ellie Simmonds celebrates another gold medal Swimmer Ellie Simmonds is one of the highest-profile Paralympic athletes in Britain

The Paralympic Games will showcase the best athletes and the most exciting events in disability sport.

Disability is often a sensitive issue, and over the years the way we talk about and address disabled people has drastically changed.


  • Why not use this guide as part of a discussion about the use of appropriate language when covering sensitive subjects?

When writing about disability it is important to always be respectful. The vital thing to remember is to treat disabled athletes with the same respect as you would non-disabled athletes.

The fundamental rule should always be: Sport first, Disability second.

A few things to bear in mind:

  • Avoid being patronising, calling Paralympians "brave" can be seen as condescending. Paralympians are not "suffering" victims, their disabilities are a part of who they are. By using emotional words and phrases, it takes the emphasis away from the sport
  • If you are interviewing a disability sport athlete, always speak directly with the person rather than their companion, assistant or interpreter
  • Don't dress things up, just say it like it is. When around people with disabilities, just relax and behave naturally- shake hands with a disabled person as you would anyone else for example, even if they are wearing a prosthesis or have limited movement of their hand or arm, since this is a universal sign of greeting
  • Give some thought to your questions/phrases. For example, when interviewing Paralympic athletes be wary of how you phrase your questions, do not say "what is wrong with you?". "What is your disabilty/impairment?" is a much more polite and respectful way of enquiring
  • Avoid stereotypes at all costs! Disabled people are not all the same, just like members of any other group in society - women, teenagers, teachers - are not the same
  • And most importantly, always show respect and awareness

Take a look at this table guide with some of the key do's and don't's:

(source: British Paralympic Association)

Use Instead of Why?

The Paralympic Games


Paraplegic Olympics

Special Olympics

These Games have a specific title: "The Paralympic Games"



This is a different team with a different name. The Paralympic Games and Olympic Games are different events and "TeamGB" only describes the British team for the Olympic Games


Paralympic hopeful

Athletes/Disabled athlete

Retired Paralympian

Special Olympians/athletes



"Paralympians" is the correct term for competitors in these Games (as opposed to "Olympians"), "Paralympic hopeful" is the term for people hoping to be selected and "athlete" (or "disabled athlete") is an appropriate term for athletes competing at any other level

British Paralympic Association

British Olympic Association

These are different organisations for the two events

Disabled people



The disabled

The impaired

People with disabilities

Registered disabled

There is some debate between "disabled people" and "people with disabilities" as the preferred term. As a general rule people at the informed end of the spectrum prefer "disabled people". Under this perspective people have "impairments" but are "disabled" by barriers in society (eg someone who uses a wheelchair because of their impairment is only disabled when buildings are not accessible)

Non-disabled person



The term "non-disabled" is the recommended term to describe people without disabilities/impairments. Examples are:

"an athlete who is not disabled…"

"a non-disabled athlete…"

"Able-bodied" can cause offence as it implies by default that barriers for disabled people are caused by their bodies, rather than society. In addition, this insinuation is particularly inappropriate when talking about Paralympians in good health and at peak fitness




The term "impairment" is generally the preferred term to refer to a specific disability or condition (eg someone who has a mobility impairment). However, some people may prefer to refer to their "disability". Impairment is relatively neutral whereas a term like "affliction" has negative connotations that many people will not identify with. The term "condition" is more commonly used to describe a (possibly temporary or fluctuating) medical condition rather than a disability


Living with

Suffers from


The word "suffer" has negative connotations that it is important to avoid: disabled people do not necessarily 'suffer', or see their impairment in negative terms. Use a neutral term such as has when referring to someone's impairment. Someone may choose to describe themselves as "suffering" but as an external party it is important to use a term such as "has"

Someone who has epilepsy/diabetes etc

An epileptic

A diabetic

Labelling someone as 'a something' can feel dehumanising so use the term "who has…" as this puts the person first rather than labelling their whole identity based on their impairment

A wheelchair user


Confined to a wheelchair


"Confined" and "bound" have negative connotations that it is important to avoid. Many wheelchair users see their wheelchair as a liberating force that enriches their lives. In addition, many wheelchair users have some mobility and do not use their wheelchair all the time

Deaf or deaf

Someone who has a hearing impairment

Partial hearing loss

Hard of hearing

The deaf

The Deaf

The hearing impaired

Deaf and Dumb


Different people are comfortable with particular words to describe their own deafness or hearing loss. Some people may define themselves as "Deaf" (with a capital D) which often relates to people who are deaf from an early age, use British Sign Language and see themselves as part of a cultural minority.

Take your lead from the person you are communicating with but be careful to avoid the terms "the deaf" (implies someone is part of a uniform group), "deaf and dumb "and "mute" as these are not acceptable.

If you are writing the term for publication/internet then check with the individual whether they prefer the term "deaf" or "Deaf" but if in doubt, use "deaf".

Also be careful to address the individual, not their interpreter if they have one.

Personal assistant/PA

Support worker





Some people may still refer to their PA as a "carer" but the preferred term is "PA" or "support worker". In other cases, some people may have a family member or friend with them to support them and may feel it is more accurate to call them a "carer". It is very important to always address the individual, not their PA or interpreter


Visual Impairment

Partially sighted

Sight loss

The Blind

The visually impaired

Registered blind

Collective nouns such as "The blind" or "The deaf" imply that people are part of a uniform group and removes a sense of individuality. Don't agonise over using everyday terms such as "see you later" as most people understand these are natural terms of speech

A person who has a learning disability

Mentally handicapped


Some people use the term "learning difficulty" but the British Paralympic Association recommends the term "learning disability". These terms can mean different things to different people (some people use the term "learning difficulty" to refer to specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia; others use the term to refer to conditions such as Downs Syndrome). The 2012 Paralympic Games does include athletes with learning disabilities in a number of sports

Restricted growth



There can be a lot of confusion over the right term here but the preferred terms are usually "restricted growth" or "dwarfism". "Dwarfism" is a medical term that many people still use and in itself is fine. However, using the term "dwarf" or "dwarves" is not acceptable as it must be used in the context of "someone who has dwarfism" or "someone who has a form of dwarfism"






"Seizures" is the most neutral and accurate term for people with conditions (such as epilepsy) that can cause sudden episodes of transient neurologic symptoms such as involuntary muscle movements, sensory disturbances and altered consciousness




"Someone with an amputation" or "amputee" are both acceptable terms. However, bear in mind that sometimes people have a similar condition but not from an amputation, it might have been present from birth

Person who has cerebral palsy


The term "spastic" is out-dated and offensive and must be avoided

Accessible toilet

Special/Disabled toilet

"Disabled toilet" does not make grammatical sense and as mentioned above, the term "special" should not be used. "Accessible toilet" is accurate and appropriate.

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