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Disabilities, Neurodiversity, and Chronic Illness

ableism / ableist language

Ableism is discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities. Ableist language refers to individual words and phrases (like “dumb” or “crazy”) as well as metaphors or expressions (such as “emotionally crippled”) that perpetuate negative stereotypes about people with disabilities. Unless it is intrinsic to a story, it is usually not necessary to comment on the assumed healthiness or unhealthiness of a person. Using disability-specific terms only in the context of disability, rather than to describe unrelated issues or ideas, helps avoid these pitfalls.


Accessibility generally means how easily a person with a disability can access something compared to a person without that disability. It is not a static feature. A given public space may be accessible for a person with one disability but not to someone with a different disability. If discussing accessibility, being as specific as possible about the issue(s) and how they impact someone with a certain disability adds essential context. Providing an accessible option in web-based and other publishing ensures your content is available to a wider audience.

Alzheimer’s disease

A progressive neurologic disorder that causes dementia and ultimately hinders an individual’s ability to function independently. Incidents like memory loss should not automatically be assumed to be representative of the disease, and avoiding patronizing or infantilizing language in coverage is important.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a landmark piece of civil rights legislation that protects people with disabilities against discrimination. A common term in discussions of the ADA is “reasonable accommodation,” defined as a change to the hiring process, work environment, or way a job is performed that allows a qualified person with a disability to perform that job.

applied behavior analysis (ABA)

Applied behavior analysis is a method of modifying behaviors in autistic children through behaviorist techniques (i.e., rewards and punishments). ABA remains one of the most common behavioral interventions of autism; alternatives include occupational therapy and structured teaching. The effectiveness of ABA is under debate, and some consider the practice abusive. Exploring these debates helps ensure thoughtful coverage of differing practices and viewpoints within the autism community.

Asperger’s syndrome

Asperger’s syndrome is no longer an official diagnosis. That said, some people may self-identify as having Asperger’s. Limiting use of the term to instances of self-identification, quotes, or historical context is a way to acknowledge how people represent themselves while still aligning with current understandings of neurodivergence.

assistive technology

Assistive technology is any device or object used by a person with a disability to navigate an existing built environment that otherwise is not accessible to them, such as a screen reader to read the text on a website. Describing someone as, for instance, “using” a wheelchair rather than being “confined” to it or “dependent on” it avoids defining someone’s experiences with these devices for them.

attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental condition characterized by inattention, impulsivity, and/or hyperactivity. People with ADHD can qualify for accommodations through the Americans with Disabilities Act. That said, some individuals in the neurodivergence community relate to ADHD as a disability and others do not, so it’s important to understand the terms the people you are writing about use to refer to themselves. Using ADHD as a noun (“X has ADHD”) rather than an adjective (“X is ADHD”) accurately portrays ADHD as a condition and not the sum total of a person or their experiences.


Autism is a neurological variant characterized by differences in communication, sensory processing, cognition, and socialization. Many people in the autism community prefer identity-first language; taking into account an individual’s preference whenever possible ensures coverage accurately reflects how someone identifies. Some autistic individuals may call themselves “autists” or “autistics,” but using this term to describe someone who doesn’t self-identify that way can be read as making a choice for them. Non-autistic people in this context are called “allistic.”

bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder that used to be called “manic depression,” characterized by alternating episodes of unusually low mood (depression) and elevated mood (mania). When deciding whether to mention a specific diagnosis of bipolar disorder, there are several things to consider. Is it pertinent to your story? Is it a formal diagnosis you’ve verified? Do you have the person’s permission? Phrases like “X has bipolar disorder” or “X is being treated for bipolar disorder” (versus “is bipolar”) are ways to frame a diagnosis as just one aspect of someone’s identity that doesn’t define them.

Last updated 08/05/22

Health is not a static, fixed state — it exists on a spectrum, determined by many factors. How disabilities and illnesses are discussed has changed significantly over time, and careful media coverage will take into account that everyone’s experiences and perceptions of those experiences are different, and there is no one “standard” for health.

This section of the Language, Please style guidance aims to provide tools for avoiding common pitfalls and stereotypes when discussing disabilities and illnesses.

This resource was informed by questions and discussions from our own newsrooms. It is a living document that will update and expand over time. It is not meant to be comprehensive or the definitive arbiter of language “rules” but instead aims to give context and inform thoughtful decision-making. Have a suggestion for an update, change, or addition? Please get in touch.

How to use: Browse the whole section or search for the term you need guidance on; click into any term for in-depth context, additional resources, and related terms. 

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