People-First Language

Per Washington D.C.’s Office of Disabilities, 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 is exactly what it implies – placing the person before the disability. Of course this makes sense; a person is not defined by their disability ever. People-First Language should describe what a person has, not what a person is. Person with a disability or individuals with disabilities should be used in place of using the term “the disabled”.

Here Are Some Suggestions To Keep In Mind

1.  Emphasize abilities, not limitations. 

Choosing language that emphasizes what people can do instead of what they can’t do is empowering.

Person who uses a wheelchairWheelchair bound; confined to a wheelchair
Person who uses a communication device; uses an alternative method of communicationIs non-verbal; can’t talk

2. In general, refer to the person first and the disability second. 

People with disabilities are, first and foremost, people.  Labeling a person equates the person with a condition and can be disrespectful and dehumanizing. A person isn’t a disability, condition or diagnosis, a person has a disability, condition, or diagnosis. This is called Person-First Language. 

Person with a disability, people with disabilitiesDisabled person; the disabled
Man with paraplegiaParaplegic; paraplegic man
Person with a learning disabilitySlow learner
Student receiving special education servicesSpecial education student
A person of short statureDwarf, midget
A person who is deaf or hard of hearingHearing impaired; deaf-mute

3.  Use neutral language. 

Do not use language that portrays the person as passive or suggests a lack of something: victim, invalid, defective

Person who has had a strokeStroke victim
Congenital disabilityBirth defect
Person with epilepsyPerson afflicted with epilepsy, epileptic
Person with a brain injuryBrain damaged, brain injury sufferer
Burn survivorBurn victim
Person with a speech difficultyDumb or mute
Person with a visual impairmentBlind

4. Use language that emphasizes the need for accessibility rather than the presence of a disability.

Accessible parkingHandicapped parking
Accessible restroomDisabled restroom

**Note that ‘handicapped’ is an outdated and unacceptable term to use when referring to individuals or accessible environments. When in doubt whether a term is unacceptable, err on the side of caution and refrain from using it.

5.  Do not use condescending euphemisms. 

Terms like differently-abledchallengedhandi-capable or special are often considered condescending. 

6.  Do not use offensive language. 

Examples of offensive language include freak, retard, lame, imbecile, vegetable, cripple, crazy, or psycho