Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.


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This post is dedicated to those people who land on this blog after googling for information about how to describe people who use wheelchairs.

Avoid describing people who use a wheelchair as ‘wheelchair-bound’ or ‘in a wheelchair’ or ‘confined to a wheelchair’. Prefer ‘wheelchair user’, or phrases such as ‘she uses a wheelchair’.

Don’t refer to someone who is not a wheelchair user as ‘able-bodied’. If you need to differentiate in this way, use the term ‘non-disabled’. This is because ‘able-bodied’ can imply that someone who uses a wheelchair is not able.

Don’t forget that there’s no need to mention the fact that someone is a wheelchair user if it’s not relevant.

Politically correct writing and speaking

Read more on this at The Limit-Less Campaign.

From the Guardian:

I’m a wheelchair user. I’m not wheelchair-bound, or confined to my wheelchair. My disability has not made me courageous or admirable, or deserving of a pat on the head just because you can reach it. I hate having my head patted.

I have total feeling in all limbs, so when you said, “You probably didn’t feel that”, rather than apologising for kicking me, you were wrong. I don’t have strong shoulders from pushing a wheelchair: my shoulders are prematurely weakening for that very reason.

Read more



20 Responses

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  1. In my judgment, avoiding referring to people as “able bodied” for PC reasons is one step too far. It does not suggest that people in wheelchairs are not able; it states that they are not able-bodied. I have throughout my life been conspicuous for my lack of nimbleness to the extent (e.g .I have to ride a tricycle rather than a bike); but I don’t suggest for one moment that people should avoid using words or phrases like “nimble” and its synonyms.


    21/02/2010 at 6:11 pm

    • Hello, Dai — I think a lot of people would agree with you. This is such a tricky area. I’ve spent years writing public documents for councils and the NHS (the former, as you will know, are particularly keen to display their PC-ness, to a sometimes ludicrous extent). In saying that people should avoid the term ‘able bodied’ I am bearing in mind that some people who use wheelchairs do not like this term. If finding an alternative means that they will not be offended (and the alternative will not offend others), I think that’s preferable.

      Your views are welcome, Dai. Thanks for taking the time to share them here.


      21/02/2010 at 6:21 pm

  2. Sorry, technical fault in my last reply. Part should read: “I have throughout my life been conspicuous for my lack of nimbleness to the extent that I suspect I have some form of dyspraxia (e.g .I have to ride a tricycle rather than a bike); but I don’t suggest for one moment that people should avoid using words or phrases like “nimble” and its synonyms.”

    “Non-disabled” is just silly, and condescending both to disabled and able-bodied people. Such negative stereotypes can develop lives of their own; “My cousin isn’t non-disabled.” etc.. In any case, why should people be made to feel bad because they don’t suffer from a disability?


    21/02/2010 at 6:28 pm

    • I totally understand what you’re saying, Dai. I think that the most important thing I want to get across is that we constantly need to think about the language that we use and the often very subtle influence it can have on the way we view ourselves and each other. I don’t think that I have all the answers, and I’m always keen to hear new viewpoints and ideas on this issue. I’m very conscious that what may be considered acceptable terminology today could become unacceptable in the future. It is a really difficult area. Thanks again.


      21/02/2010 at 6:40 pm

  3. Great call. This is excellent advice.


    21/02/2010 at 8:24 pm

    • Hello, and thank you very much. I hope it is of some help.


      21/02/2010 at 8:28 pm

  4. This is an excellent topic and great advice. It is hard to decide on what words are acceptable and what one are not.. Respecting people with disabilities is a big part of my life and i am glad to see that others care too 🙂

    Check out my blog and let me know what you think

    Keep up the good work 🙂

    Nancy Walker

    26/02/2010 at 4:47 pm

    • Hello, Nancy — you’re very welcome here. I will certainly take a look at your blog. Thanks for your encouragement. As you say, it’s a very difficult area and language is changing all the time. We can only do our best!


      26/02/2010 at 4:54 pm

  5. Hi Deborah,

    As a wheelchair user I agree with your last para – it’s almost always irrelevant. You wouldn’t, after all, define someone by their brown suede shoes (though perhaps wearing them should be a crime), so why define someone as a wheelchair user?

    I find it very hard to get worked up over “confined to a wheelchair” though. After all, some people actually are, at least during the day as, indeed, are two of my neighbous. However, unless referring to a wheelchair athlete, the chair is usually of no consequence anyway.

    I think the whole wheelchair thing is really a problem with the press, who just love to pigeon-hole people, almost entirely pointlessly, and often egregiously. Sometimes to the extent that “Mr. X, aged 47, lives alone and keeps ferrets in the bath, and goldfish in the top drawer of his bedside table” often assumes greater prominence that the fact that Mr. X is a serial killer.




    18/04/2010 at 9:02 pm

    • My first name isn’t Dah-doo – there should be only one Ron.


      18/04/2010 at 9:11 pm

      • That made me laugh! Always a good thing on a Monday morning. Thanks, Ron.


        19/04/2010 at 6:42 am

    • Thanks for these very interesting and thoughtful comments, Ron. One or two other people have also said to me that ‘confined to a wheelchair’ is perfectly OK as a description. As you say, the wheelchair should usually be irrelevant in any case.


      19/04/2010 at 6:42 am

  6. The proper way is always Person First———-person who uses a wheelchair. We are People first!!


    23/01/2011 at 4:31 pm

    • Hi! Thanks so much for dropping by and taking the time to make a comment here. Your input is very welcome.


      23/01/2011 at 5:02 pm

  7. I like TAB – temporarily able bodied. At some point in time we all will likely be less able bodied than we are now!


    27/01/2011 at 9:36 pm

    • Hello, Sue — welcome!

      I’ve never come across ‘TAB’ before, so thanks for sharing that. An interesting thought!


      28/01/2011 at 8:53 am

  8. Interesting thoughts from Wheelchair Dancer:


    When I stand using crutches, how do I interpret them? Do I analyze their significance to me emotionally? What do I think about the anatomical function that they perform? Or, how do I think about what they do for me? And when I add them to my arms what happens to my flesh arms? What if I saw them only in terms of their movement function? If I call my wheelchair a part of my back or, even, a part of my backside, what happens to my flesh? My spine?…


    28/02/2011 at 2:22 pm

  9. Deborah, somehow I missed this post. I’ve read it and all your comments with interest.

    This is my personal take on it.

    As you know, words have tremendous power. Unfortunately, many words relating to the disabled bring up so many destructive emotions because of their negative connotations.

    Ironically, I use a wheelchair to get around but it is most certainly not what defines me as a woman. I’m healthy – not even had the flu in the past five years. I’m emotionally strong. I’m fit – albeit wheelchair fit. I consider myself to be a far more whole and wholesome person now than what I ever was before my accident.

    But, as humans we have a need to label people and put them into boxes. Before, words like disabled, handicapped or crippled would have hurt me but now I’m proud to say that my name is Tracy. I am a quadriplegic. Yes, I am disabled but I am proud of who and what I am.

    I think that the disability community needs to stand up and show the world that it doesn’t matter what word they choose to call us, we should own that word with pride and dignity and in so doing, demand respect and admiration.

    Tracy Todd

    31/05/2011 at 8:36 am

    • Hi, Tracy

      Thank you so much for your detailed and eloquent response to this post. At least two or three people land on this particular post every day (sometimes more). I’m very glad that visitors will now be able to read and take on board your comments, which say far more than my original post.


      31/05/2011 at 9:31 am

  10. More insight from Wheelchair Dancer. Excerpt:

    I hate being pushed in my chair — more on that in a second or two — I avoid it as much as I can.

    If I think the person with me is fairly strong, I proffer a hand. We share a grip; we solidify our shoulders in their sockets and breathe down. I use my body and my chair as resistance to my extended arm, and the other person pulls me. We walk almost side by side, as friends. If the person is not that strong, they push on the back of my chair, but I keep a firm hand or two on my wheels. I keep pushing my wheels. In both cases, we move as a unit, and we work as a unit.

    I’m struck by how hard this is to write and by how hard I am working to phrase this pushing, this movement as a joint endeavour.


    31/05/2011 at 2:07 pm

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