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People-First Language: Putting the Person Before the Disability

Illustrations of people with disabilities

Identifying a person or group primarily by their disabilities subjects them to devaluation, marginalization, and prejudice. By replacing outdated and offensive terms that describe what a person has with terms that assert what a person is, we put a person before their medical diagnosis.

According to EARN, “People-first language (PFL) emphasizes the individuality, equality, and dignity of people with disabilities. Rather than defining people primarily by their disability, people-first language conveys respect by emphasizing the fact that people with disabilities are first and foremost just that—people.”

What Should We Say Instead?

Prejudicial language identifies people as “less than,” “not like us,” or “incapable.” By contrast, people-first language is affirming and supportive.

Here are some examples of how to make our language more inclusive (negative phrases → affirmative phrases):

  • “She is retarded” → “She has an intellectual, cognitive, developmental disability”
  • “He is crippled” → “He has a physical disability”
  • “That person is epileptic” → “That person has epilepsy”
  • “She is crazy” → “She has a psychiatric disability”
  • “He is an addict” → “He is in recovery from a substance abuse disorder”

Tips for Putting People First

  • When talking to or about a person with a disability, consider if the disability is truly relevant or necessary to mention.
  • Whenever possible, ask the individual how they would like to be addressed. According to EARN, “How a person chooses to self-identify is up to them, and they should not be corrected or admonished if they choose not to use identity-first language.”
  • Avoid portraying successful individuals with disabilities as extraordinary or “superhuman.” According to GDCC, this raises false expectations that all people with disabilities should be “high-achievers.” Instead, recognize the barriers someone with a disability has to overcome to do simple or ordinary tasks.
  • Texas Council for Developmental Disabilities (TCDD) encourages leaders to emphasize abilities, not limitations in people with disabilities. Try this: “They use a wheelchair.” Not this: “They are confined to a wheelchair.” Wheelchairs provide mobility to individuals who otherwise wouldn’t have that liberation.
  • GDCC suggests avoiding euphemisms and negative or sensationalizing terms. Think: crippled, confined, inconvenienced, challenged, suffers, struggles, afflicted with, or victim.

Stand Up for Diversity and Inclusion

People with disabilities face unique and pervasive challenges. Public Allies is dedicated to disrupting ableism in all its forms, while listening, learning and working across differences to build the common good. Join us.