Words Can Hurt


Words matter. Be they positive or negative. They can either be empowering or disempowering. People with Down Syndrome used to be (and still are) labeled “Mongoloid”, “handicapped”, “mentally retarded”, “retarded”, or just “retard”.

Today, these labels are considered politically incorrect, hurtful and dehumanizing. There is no difference between derogatory words used to label ethnic or religious minorities and the words used to label people with Down syndrome. As with people advocating for ethnic or religious minorities, there is a movement (led by Special Olympics) to end the use of derogatory words such as the “R” word – ‘retard.’ You can join the movement or learn more by clicking here.

Which words should we use?

“Intellectually and Developmentally Disabled” with the acronym IDD is the most widely accepted term used to refer to someone who has cognitive and physical delays. Some organizations which are mindful of the sensitivity involved with labels use “cognitive disability”, “intellectual disability”, or developmental disability.
Still others use the word “challenged” instead of disability. For KDSP, we would like to take it a step further and refer to the Down syndrome community as being “differently-abled”.

People-First language

It is crucial that we do not allow anyone’s disability to take precedence over the individual person. How we talk about people leads to how we define them. If we choose to define people by their diagnosis, then the diagnosis may be all we ever see.

People First Language puts the person before the disability, and describes what a person has, not who a person is. People First Language helps (1) give more dignity to the individual who is differently-abled, and (2) provides a language that is not instilled with stereotypes and preconceived ideas about the individual who happens to be differently-abled to society in general.

Instead of “a Down syndrome child,” it should be “a child with Down syndrome.” Also avoid “Down’s child” and describing the condition as “Down’s,” as in, “He has Down’s.” Also, People “have” Down syndrome, they do not “suffer from” it and are not “afflicted by” it.

Down vs. Down’s

While Down syndrome is listed in many dictionaries with both popular spellings (with or without an apostrophe s), the preferred usage is Down syndrome. This is because an “apostrophe s” connotes ownership or possession. Down syndrome is named for the English physician John Langdon Down, who characterized the condition, but did not have it.