Words matter. Words can open doors to enable persons with disabilities to lead fuller, more independent lives. Words can also create barriers or stereotypes that are not only demeaning to persons with disabilities, but also rob them of their individuality. The following language guidelines have been developed by experts for intellectual disabilities for use by anyone writing or speaking about persons with disabilities to ensure that all people are portrayed with individuality and dignity.

Appropriate Terminology

  • Refer to participants in Special Olympics as Special Olympics athletes rather than Special Olympians.
  • In no case should the word athletes appear in quotation marks.
  • Refer to individuals, persons or people with intellectual disabilities, rather than disabled people or the mentally retarded.
  • A person has a intellectual disability, rather than is suffering from, is afflicted with or is a victim of disabilities.
  • Distinguish between adults and children with intellectual disabilities. Use adults or children, or older or younger athletes.
  • A person uses a wheelchair, rather than is confined or restricted to a wheelchair.
  • “Down syndrome” has replaced Down’s Syndrome and mongoloid.
  • When writing, refer to persons with a disability in the same style as persons without a disability: full name on first reference and last name on subsequent references. Do not refer to an individual with intellectual disabilities as “Bill” rather than the journalistically correct “Bill Smith” or “Smith.”
  • A person is disabled rather than crippled.
  • Use the words “Special Olympics” when referring to the worldwide Special Olympics movement. No “the” is placed before the organization.

Terminology to Avoid

  • Do not use the label “kids” when referring to Special Olympics athletes. Adult athletes are an integral part of the movement.
  • Do not use the adjective “unfortunate” when talking about persons with intellectual disabilities. Disabling conditions do not have to be life-defining in a negative way.
  • Do not sensationalize the accomplishments of persons with disabilities. While these accomplishments should be recognized and applauded, people in the disability rights movement have tried to make the public aware of the negative impact of referring to the achievements of physically or intellectually challenged people with excessive hyperbole.
  • Use the word “special” with extreme care when talking about persons with intellectual disabilities. The term, if used excessively in references to Special Olympics athletes and activities, can become a cliché.

Use the words “Special Olympics Inc” when referring to the worldwide Special Olympics program. “SOI” may also be used on second reference.

Use the words “Special Olympics Wisconsin” when referring to the Wisconsin Chapter of Special Olympics. “SOWI” may be used on second reference.

For more information contact

Christina Harris, Director of Communications
Special Olympics Wisconsin
Phone: (608) 442-5672
Toll Free: (800) 552-1324