Terms Associated with Cerebral Palsy: Disability and Suffering

We created a page of terms that surround Cerebral Palsy etiquette, but anyone in touch with the special needs community knows more is needed. Sadly, just as much as there is near universal rejection of the “r-word,” it still appears in casual conversation and some high-profile discussions, while being offensively mimicked by a Presidential candidate. As we have shared content from across the web, we have noticed there are additional words and phrases to be concerned about. In seeking to discuss terms associated with Cerebral Palsy, including “disability,” “suffering” and others, we hope to help introduce the reasoning behind the frustration.

It is important to note that we do not feel like we are the ultimate arbitrator of what is okay and what is not when speaking about conditions and special needs. While certain terms are clearly out of bounds, there is an active dialogue around some language surrounding Cerebral Palsy that not only requires consideration, but also sensitivity and thoughtful review.  There is obviously very little, if any, negative intent surrounding the need to adjust the way we as a society speak about special needs. Instead, it is important to thoughtfully review how we speak about things to ensure we do not promote negative thinking and ideas that will break down equality and promote bias in our country and beyond.

With that said, two key terms are commonly questioned on our Facebook Page when appearing in the original text of articles we share.  ‘Disability’ and ‘Suffering,’ while used in different contexts, each receive valid negative reactions when appearing in news articles in the United States and beyond. Not entirely used in a demeaning manner, we should still consider moving away from them due to the negative implications they foster.


Within the term itself, there is an immediate implication of inadequacy. The use of ‘dis’ implies deficit in a culture more focused on what can be done. Unfortunately, disability is firmly rooted in the language used for conditions like Cerebral Palsy, due to its association with critical financial assistance supplied by our  the government (i.e. Social Security Disability).  Applying for ‘disability,’ in a number of forms, is connected with a very real need for help. Used in such a sterile way, disability is well meant and will likely be around for some time.

However, we do encourage the correction of disability in common language and discussion.  While it is positive to explain to children that differences are not only real, but to be accepted (avoiding creating a stigma while open dialogue with a child on the topic), the negative focus can be restrictive. Many champion terms like, ‘Challenged,’ ‘differently abled’ or ‘has special needs,’ all terms we highly recommend over simply summarizing a child’s condition as a disability. With such positive language, the child understands there is more that is possible while encouraging others not to put a ceiling or limit on that or any other child.

Suffering/Condition-First Language

A common cultural nuance involving language that we have come across while sharing articles is the use of ‘suffering’ when describing individuals living with Cerebral Palsy. Similarly, we have come across topics that use Cerebral Palsy to describe a person, rather than explaining the nuance that CP is a condition, not a descriptor. In some countries, suffer is used interchangeably with ‘diagnosed with’ or to highlight their positive perseverance. While we would like to see change made in how that language is used, we wanted to point out that articles that use ‘suffer,’ specifically from other countries, may not be intended as demeaning or belittling.

The preferred way to address a person’s condition or challenges is through the use of person-first language. As such, a person is not a Cerebral Palsy sufferer or a CP child: they are a person or child living with Cerebral Palsy. Some titles of our blogs use condition-first language, but this is done to make subjects easier to find for parents using Google to find topics and free Cerebral Palsy resources; ultimately, our focus is ensuring people understand there is a human being behind a diagnosis.

We want to hear from you! What outdated language do you find keeps being used or appearing in your daily life? What do you wish the public understood about ‘words’ that can be harmful or, at minimum, demeaning to those with special needs or challenges? Let us know by contacting us, visiting our Forum or leaving a comment on our Facebook Page today!

Questions about free Cerebral Palsy resources for your child? Call us at (800) 692-4453 today (or at your convenience)! While our offices are open 9 am to 5 pm EST, Monday through Friday, we welcome you to let us know when we can best meet your schedule and will do what we can to ensure you receive the free Cerebral Palsy resources to help you make an impact in the life of a child with CP.