People First Language

How Do You Talk About People with Disabilities?

Keith as a young adult camp counsellor stand with several happy children around him. He's wearing sunglasses and smiling; the photo is typical of the 1970s.

Words have Power

Self-advocates with intellectual disabilities have clearly stated that negative language leads to harmful action, discrimination, abuse, negative stereotypes, disenfranchisement, and violence. The language we use to describe people is continually evolving – words used in the past (and sometimes still today!) can be derogatory and dehumanizing (think of a certain “R” word or “N” word).

And very importantly, our use of negative or stereotyping words and labels can cause others to think that people with disabilities are not able to achieve the things that others can achieve.

People with disabilities are people!

One in four people in the US lives with a disability. Forty-eight million Americans have trouble hearing. And one in six children in the US is born with a  developmental disability. They are our friends, our neighbors, and our community members.

People with disabilities do not want to be labeled and they do not want to be defined by their particular disability or disabilities. Disability is a natural part of the human experience, an aspect of human diversity, like other areas of human variation.

What is People First Language?

From the Office of Disability Rights: 

The People First Respectful Language Modernization Act of 2006 was enacted by the Council of the District of Columbia on July 11, 2006 to “require the use of respectful language when referring to people with disabilities in all new and revised District laws, regulations, rules, and publications and all internet publications.”

“People First Language” (PFL) puts the person before the disability, and describes what a person has, not who a person is. PFL uses phrases such as “person with a disability,” “individuals with disabilities,” and “children with disabilities,” as opposed to phrases

that identify people based solely on their disability, such as “the disabled.”

The phrase “mental retardation” is offensive and outdated. The terms “developmental disability,” “cognitive disability,” or “intellectual disability” may be substituted as more respectful options.

People with disabilities also do not want to be referred to as a victim or object of pity. People with disabilities are not victims. Disability is just one aspect of the person. Avoid using terms like,  “suffers from,” “afflicted with,” “bound,” “confined,” “victim,” or any other term that implies tragedy.

From the Office of Disability Rights: 

The People First Respectful Language Modernization Act of 2006 was enacted by the Council of the District of Columbia on July 11, 2006 to “require the use of respectful language when referring to people with disabilities in all new and revised District laws, regulations, rules, and publications and all internet publications.”

“People First Language” (PFL) puts the person before the disability, and describes what a person has, not who a person is. PFL uses phrases such as “person with a disability,” “individuals with disabilities,” and “children with disabilities,” as opposed to phrases that identify people based solely on their disability, such as “the disabled.”

The phrase “mental retardation” is offensive and outdated. The terms “developmental disability,” “cognitive disability,” or “intellectual disability” may be substituted as more respectful options.

People with disabilities also do not want to be referred to as a victim or object of pity. People with disabilities are not victims. Disability is just one aspect of the person. Avoid using terms like,  “suffers from,” “afflicted with,” “bound,” “confined,” “victim,” or any other term that implies tragedy.

A simple colorful illustration depicts one person using a wheelchair and one person standing having a conversation.

People First vs. Identity First Language

What is Identity First Language? We already talked about People First Language, but it is important to note that all people are individuals with their own individual preferences. Someone with autism may want to be referred to as an “autistic person” rather than a “person with autism.” It is up to that person to decide. 

So how can you know?! When speaking to a person with a disability, you can ask their preference, or you may be able to hear how they refer to themselves when they speak. 

Using People First Language

Below is a useful table with examples of more respectful terms that may be used when referring to people who have disabilities.

Use this ...... instead of this
People with disabilitiesThe handicapped / the disabled
People without disabilitiesNormal / healthy people
Typical kidsAtypical kids
Accessible buses, bathrooms, parking, etc.Handicapped buses, bathrooms, parking, etc.
They need … / they use …They have a problem with … / has special needs
A person who ...They are / have ...
Has an Intellectual / developmental disabilityRetarded
Has a cognitive impairmentA moron / idiot / imbecile
Has Down SyndromeA Down’s kid / a mongoloid
Has Autism / a diagnosis of autismAutistic
Has a mental illness / mental health conditionEmotionally disturbed / mentally ill
Has a learning disabilityLearning disabled
Has epilepsy / a seizure disorderAn epileptic / a spaz
Is deaf / has a hearing impairment / is hard of hearingThe deaf
Is deaf and cannot speakDeaf and dumb / a mute
Uses a communication device / synthetic speechNon-verbal
Is blind / has a visual impairment / has low-visionThe blind
Has a physical disabilitycrippled
Uses a wheelchair / mobility deviceConfined to a wheelchair / wheelchair bound / a cripple
has a congenital disabilitya birth defect

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At Ability Together, we work to make change happen through education and awareness. Please use this free resource to help you in your goal to improve accessibility through communication. 

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