According to the CDC, about 50 million Americans report having a disability, which affects people in different ways, even when one person has the same type of disability as another person. Some disabilities may be hidden or not easy to see.

Person First Language

Person first language refers to the appropriate and respectful way to speak about an individual with a disability. People first language emphasizes the person first, not the disability. For example, when referring to a person with a disability, emphasize their abilities, refer to the person first such as “a person who…,” “a person with…,” or “a person who has…”

Be accurate and not judgmental. If you are unsure about how to describe a disability, ask some who knows, like the person with the disability themselves. Remember that language shapes attitude and people with disabilities for the most part, are ordinary people seeking to live ordinary lives! People with disabilities are mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, friends, neighbors, coworkers, students and teachers.

What Should You Say?

Photo of Quote, " The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug." - Mark Twain
  • Know that people with disabilities are ordinary people with your common goals of living in a home, having a job and a family. Talk about people with disabilities as you would anyone else.
  • Never equate a person with a disability, such as referring to someone as retarded, epileptic or quadriplegic. These labels should only be used as medical diagnosis. Use Person First Language to tell what a person HAS, not what a person IS.
  • Emphasize the person’s abilities not their limitations.
  • Avoid negative words that imply tragedy, such as afflicted with, suffers from, victim or unfortunate.
  • A disability is not a challenge to overcome. You should not reference a person succeeding in spite of their disability. Ordinary things do not become extraordinary because they are accomplished by a person with a disability. What is extraordinary are the lengths people with disabilities have to go through and the barriers they overcome to do ordinary things in their daily lives.
  • 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 the term “special” to imply segregation, such as separate schools or buses for people with disabilities, or to suggest a disability itself makes someone special.

Examples of Person First Language

Person First LanguageLanguage to Avoid
Person with a disabilityThe disabled, handicapped
Person without a disabilityNormal, healthy
Person with an intellectual, cognitive, developmental disabilityRetarded, slow, special person
Person with AutismThe Autistic
Person with an emotional or behavioral disability, person with a mental health or psychiatric disabilityInsane, cray, psycho, maniac, nuts, lunatic
Person who is hard of hearingHearing impaired, suffers a hearing loss
Person who is deafDeaf, mute
Person who is blind/visually impairedThe blind
Person who has a communication disorder, is unable to speak, or uses a device to speakMute, dumb
Person who uses a wheelchairConfined or restricted to a wheelchair, wheelchair bound
Person with a physical disabilityCrippled, deformed, spastic
Person with a congenital disabilityBirth defect
Person with epilepsy or seizure disorderEpileptic
Accessible parking or bathroomHandicapped parking or bathroom
Person of short statureMidget
Person with Down syndromeMongoloid
Person who is successful, productiveHas overcome his/her disability, is courageous