People First

Person-First Language

You would think words (a mere arrangement of letters) would be harmless. But how many times have you been offended, hurt, or deeply saddened by something somebody has said to you? Or maybe when somebody has called you a nasty name? Words are extremely powerful. Words by themselves have the power to hurt people. They have the ability to create negative stereotypes and attitudinal barriers. Think of it this way: Having a disability makes an individual a part of one of the only minority groups which anybody could join at any time in their lives. Consider this: If you were to become a member of this community, how would you want to be referred to? For instance if you got into an accident and needed to use a wheelchair, you would still be a full person and referring to you as “the kid in the wheelchair” would not even begin to describe who you are.

So what exactly is “Person First Language?” It is simply the act of putting the person before the disability. It also describes what attributes a person has, not what a person is. For example, it would be inappropriate to say “The retarded girl.” Instead, use people first language to say, “She has a cognitive disability,” or, “she has an intellectual disability.” Below are more examples of people first language. 

Instead of…Say….

The handicapped/disabled.

People with disabilities.

He’s autistic.

He has autism.

She is learning disabled.

She has a learning disability.

She is a quadriplegic.

She has a physical disability.

He’s a diabetic.

He has diabetes.

He is confined to a wheelchair.

He uses a wheelchair. 

Some of the terms that are still used in our society are out-of-date and offensive. For instance, “handicapped” and “crippled” are inappropriate terms that still get thrown around quite a bit. These are derogatory terms that can suggest pity, fear, or even disgust. Another inappropriate word is “disabled.” This term refers to something that is broken down (such as a disabled vehicle). People with disabilities are not broken! Recently, we have realized how much it hurts when people are referred to as “retarded” or as having “mental retardation.” It is the stigma associated with “retardation” that has led to the national campaign to “Spread the word to end the word”.” This campaign is bringing people together to change the way we speak as a nation. You can visit the site to find more information and pledge to stop using the r-word today ( These changes in language, and how we refer to people, are all rooted in the fact that we should always treat others how we would want to be treated.

By using inappropriate language—language that does not put the person first—we are labeling people according to their disability. Labeling can have an extremely stigmatizing effect on people and those labels tend to stay with them for a long time. Just remember, labeling people leads to harmful portrayals and stereotypes. The only label that a person—any person—should ever have is their name. 

Write a reflection piece in which you imagine you are a person with a disability. The disability you will “have” is your choice. Below are some guidelines and ideas that you may wish to think and write about. If you have a disability you may choose to write about your own experiences.

  1. Briefly describe what disability you have chosen.
  2. How would (or does) having this disability affect your life (school, work,   extra-curricular activities, social life)?
  3. How would you want, or expect, to be treated?
  4. How would you want others to refer to your disability?
  5. Would you feel you had more in common with other people with disabilities,
  6. or your family and friends without
  7. disabilities?
  8. What kinds of accommodations or supports do you think you would need to go to school, go to work, and live and get around in the community?