People currently described as having disabilities have not always been described or construed in this way. Debates about, and changes in, terminology characterise professional debates in this field and are important to the self advocacy movement. This paper explores the grammar of terminology, and links it to the concerns of professionals in their attempts to describe and classify people. It traces the narrowing of the focus of attention from the whole person, to an aspect of the person — the mind, intelligence or the facility for learning. Finally, it questions whether these changes are as progressive as is often assumed.