Person First Language
Person First Language

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Building a community of respect & acceptance!

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About Person First Language

Our words and their meanings can make a difference!


"A person who..."

"A person with..."


Who are People with Disabilities?

People with disabilities are — first and foremost — people. People with disabilities are people who have individual abilities, interests and needs. Their contributions enrich our communities and society as they live, work and share their lives with those around them. People with disabilities are moms, dads, sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, friends, neighbors, coworkers, students and teachers.  

Approximately 54 million Americans or one out of every five individuals have a disability. In addition, people with disabilities constitute our nation’s largest minority group, which is simultaneously the most inclusive and the most diverse. Everyone is represented; all genders, all ages, all religions, all socioeconomic levels and all ethnic backgrounds and yet they seem to be the last group of people that we talk about approaching in a respectful, culturally competent manner. We must begin to hold ourselves accountable to consciously adjusting our communications, micro-messages and interactions if we are to be a society that embraces all people, including those with differences, for who they are and what they contribute.

Changing Images Presented

Historically, people with disabilities have been regarded as individuals to be pitied, feared or ignored, and have been disrespected and devalued members of society. They have been portrayed as helpless victims, heroic individuals overcoming tragedy and “charity cases” who must depend on others for their well-being and care — and at times, “repulsive” persons. Media coverage has frequently focused on heartwarming features and inspirational stories that reinforced stereotypes and patronized and underestimated individuals’ capabilities. People with disabilities continue to seek accurate portrayals that present a respectful, positive view of individuals as active participants of society, in regular social, work and home environments. 

The language a society uses to refer to persons with disabilities shapes its beliefs and ideas about them. Words are powerful; Old, inaccurate, and inappropriate descriptors perpetuate negative stereotypes and attitudinal barriers. When we describe people by their labels of medical diagnoses, we devalue and disrespect them as individuals. In contrast, using thoughtful terminology can foster positive attitudes about persons with disabilities. One of the major improvements in communicating with and about people with disabilities is "People-First Language.” People-First Language emphasizes the person, not the disability. By placing the person first, the disability is no longer the primary, defining characteristic of an individual, but one of several aspects of the whole person. People-First Language is an objective way of acknowledging, communicating, and reporting on disabilities. It eliminates generalizations and stereotypes, by focusing on the person rather than the disability.

Eliminating Stereotypes — Words Matter!

Every individual regardless of sex, age, race or ability deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. As part of the effort to end discrimination and segregation in employment, education and our communities at large it’s important to eliminate prejudicial language.

Every individual regardless of sex, age, race or ability deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. Like other minorities, the disability community has developed preferred terminology — People First Language. More than a fad or political correctness, People First Language is an objective way of acknowledging, communicating and reporting on disabilities. It eliminates generalizations, assumptions and stereotypes by focusing on the person rather than the disability.

As the term implies, People First Language refers to the individual first and the disability second. It’s saying “a child with autism” instead of “the autistic." While some people may not use preferred terminology, it’s important you don’t repeat negative terms that stereotype, devalue or discriminate, just as you’d avoid racial slurs or saying “gals” instead of “women.”

Disability is not the “problem.” For example, a person who wears glasses doesn’t say, “I have a problem seeing,” they say, “I wear/need glasses.” Similarly, a person who uses a wheelchair doesn’t say, “I have a problem walking,” they say, “I use/need a wheelchair.”

Equally important, ask yourself if the disability is even relevant and needs to be mentioned when referring to individuals, in the same way racial identification is being eliminated from news stories when it is not significant.

What Should You Say?

Be sensitive when choosing the words you use. Here are a few guidelines on appropriate language.

  • Recognize that people with disabilities are ordinary people with common goals for a home, a job and a family. Talk about people in ordinary terms.
  • Never equate a person with a disability — such as referring to someone as retarded, an epileptic or quadriplegic. These labels are simply medical diagnosis. Use People First Language to tell what a person HAS, not what a person IS.
  • Emphasize abilities not limitations. For example, say “a man walks with crutches,” not” he is crippled.”
  • Avoid negative words that imply tragedy, such as afflicted with, suffers, victim, prisoner and unfortunate.
  • Recognize that a disability is not a challenge to be overcome, and don’t say people succeed in spite of a disability. Ordinary things and accomplishments do not become extraordinary just because they are done by a person with a disability. What is extraordinary are the lengths people with disabilities have to go through and the barriers they have to overcome to do the most ordinary things.
  • Use handicap to refer to a barrier created by people or the environment. Use disability to indicate a functional limitation that interferes with a person’s mental, physical or sensory abilities, such as walking, talking, hearing and learning. For example, people with disabilities who use wheelchairs are handicapped by stairs.
  • Do not refer to a person as bound to or confined to a wheelchair. Wheelchairs are liberating to people with disabilities because they provide mobility.
  • Do not use special to mean segregated, such as separate schools or buses for people with disabilities, or to suggest a disability itself makes someone special.
  • Avoid cute euphemisms such as physically challenged, inconvenienced and differently abled.
  • Promote understanding, respect, dignity and positive outlooks.

What Do You Call People with Disabilities?

People, sister, Mrs. Jones, Sara’s cousin, colleague, employee, friends, dancer, mechanic, lawyer, student, educator, neighbor, man, woman, adult, child, partner, participant, member, citizen or any other word you would use for a person. 

How Can I Help – Respond to the Call for Action?

Take the pledge to use people first language. Changing our culture and treating all people with respect with our words, behaviors and actions can start with you. Sign up and be a part of making a positive difference for those around us!

Credit for content

The Arc of Oregon:

Texas Council of Developmental Disabilities: 


Place the emphasis on the person first!

Try this...

  1. Student in Special Education
  2. Student with behaviors
  3. Student in Life Skills
  4. Person with Autism
  5. Person with an intellectual disability

Instead of this...

  1. Sped Kid
  2. Aggressive Kid
  3. Life Skills Student
  4. Autistic Person
  5. Retarded Person

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South Coast Education Service District

1350 Teakwood, Coos Bay, OR 97420, US