At MDSC, we understand that words – whether positive or negative – matter, and their impacts can be either empowering or disempowering. Hurtful language towards those with disabilities, including the “r-word’, must not be tolerated, and we consider the r-word hate speech, whether used in a malicious manner, in everyday casual speech, or in the context of a “joke.”

As part of the disabilities rights movement, MDSC promotes the use “People First language” because people with disabilities are NOT their diagnoses or disabilities. They are PEOPLE first. MDSC is not only committed to using People First language in all materials, statements, and interactions. We also work to educate and encourage the community at large to do the same.

People First Language Guidelines

For People with Down Syndrome

The correct name of this diagnosis is Down syndrome. There is no apostrophe “s” in Down. The “s” in syndrome is not capitalized (syndrome).

  1. Encourage people to use People First language.
  2. An individual with Down syndrome is an individual first and foremost.
  3. The emphasis should be on the person, not the disability. A person with Down syndrome has many other qualities and attributes that can be used to describe them.
  4. “The person with Down syndrome,” not “the Down syndrome person.”
  5. A person with Down syndrome is not “a Downs person.”
  6. A person “has” Down syndrome, rather than “suffers from,” “is a victim of,” “is diseased with,” or “afflicted by.”
  7. Each person has his/her own unique strengths, capabilities, and talents.
  8. Try not to use the clichés that are so common when describing an individual with Down syndrome. To assume all people have the same characteristics or abilities is demeaning. Also, it reinforces the stereotype that “all people with Down syndrome are the same.”

Courtesy of our national partners at the National Down Syndrome Congress

For People with Disabilities

  1. Put people first, not their disability
  2. A “person with a disability”, not a “disabled person”
  3. A “child with autism”, not an “autistic child”  Use emotionally neutral expressions
  4. A person “with” cerebral palsy, not “afflicted with” cerebral palsy
  5. An individual who had a stroke, not a stroke “victim”
  6. A person “has” Down syndrome, not “suffers from” Down syndrome
  7. Emphasize abilities, not limitations
  8. A person “uses a wheelchair”, not “wheelchair-bound”
  9. A child “receives special education services”, not “in special ed”
  10. Adopt preferred language
    • A “cognitive disability” or “intellectual disability” is preferred over “mentally retarded”
    • “Typically developing” or “typical” is preferred over “normal”
    • “Accessible” parking space or hotel room is preferred over “handicapped”

MDSC ‘r-word’ Position Statement

Origins of the “R-word”
“Mental retardation” was originally used as a clinical description for an individual with intellectual disabilities. However, over a period of decades, due to the use of deprecatory forms in common language, associations with the “R-word” today are derogatory.

Technical Language
Today, in the clinical, medical and political worlds, significant strides have been made by updating technical language to reflect societal changes and sensitivities. The term “intellectual disability” has become standard, replacing references to “mental retardation” or “mentally retarded.” This has been recognized on a local level in Massachusetts, where the r-word was stricken from the general laws in August 2010. Two months later, President Obama signed Rosa’s Law, which removed forms of the “r-word” from health, education and labor policy and replaced them with People First Language.

Everyday Language
The r-word in its various forms are now largely outdated. MDSC considers most casual use in the 21st century as degrading, insulting and disrespectful. Even when not directed at a particular individual, we believe its use reinforces painful stereotypes and creates an atmosphere that negatively affects people’s perception of those with intellectual disabilities as lesser members of society.

In today’s world, we urge everyone to practice the principles of inclusion, dignity and respect by following the guidelines proscribed by People First Language, which ensures that people are not defined by their disability. [For example, instead of saying a “Down syndrome child,” it is preferred to say a “child with Down syndrome.] By using People First Language, the speaker will be sure to identify people with disabilities as individuals first, and can maintain a proper focus on their unique gifts, accomplishments and abilities.