Using People-First Language: Words Matter

Jul 22, 2019 | Special Needs Trust

About 54 million Americans, or 1 in 5, have a disability. People with disabilities represent a diverse group.  For instance, the word “disability” applies to many different situations such as physical, developmental, medical diagnoses, chronic conditions, or injuries.

Taking into account the diverse nature of disabilities, it is important to avoid generalizations and focus on the individual. People-first language is an established way of describing individuals with disabilities in writing and in everyday conversation that emphasizes the individual over the disability. Using people-first language enforces the belief that a person is not defined by his or her disability. This language also helps to break outdated stereotypes and stops us from negatively describing someone with a disability.

Here are some examples of how to use people-first language:

UseDon’t Use
Child with special needsSpecial needs child
Boy with a learning disabilitySlow learner
Man with a disabilityDisabled man
She has a mental health conditionShe is mentally ill/emotionally disturbed/insane
He has epilepsyEpileptic/afflicted with epilepsy/suffering from epilepsy

Each person with a disability is a unique individual and the words we use can reinforce this. Using people-first language helps to put the focus on the person, not the disability.

For more information on people-first language guidelines, please visit the below online resources:

ADA National Network

American Psychiatric Association

The Arc