People-First Language: Do's and Don'ts

Published September 8, 2021

In 2021 it is estimated that over 61 million Americans live with a disability. As the country continues to improve access for all citizens, the use of People-First Language has been widely adopted throughout the country. Here we examine its use and other deprecated terms. 

"Do's" in People-First Language

A person with a disability/living with a disability

A phrase meant to emphasize someone’s status as a full-fledged, multi-faceted human being, instead of focusing on one sole facet of the person: their disability.

"A person with a disability/living with a disability" as a phrase is meant to separate a person from the disability that they possess. This phrase implies that while a person’s disability may be attached to a person, it isn’t necessarily a central part of a person. The disability does not make up who they are as human beings. A person’s disability is significant enough to be a part of their identity, but it is not the defining part of that identity.

The term can be used to convey that:

  • A person is more than their disability, more than the sum of their parts. While they may have a difficult time doing some tasks, that does not mean they are incapable people overall. It does not determine their worth. Therefore, people should look beyond a person’s disability to see the abilities and inner value that a person has.
  • A person is a human being with needs, desires, and feelings, just like other people. They are equal, despite the widespread stigma, fear of, and devaluation of, disabilities that says otherwise. They are the same as everyone else.

Wheelchair User

A term to describe people in relation to their wheelchairs in a positive way. The term is intended to highlight how many people with disabilities view their wheelchairs as helpful devices to enhance mobility. Many people with disabilities prefer to use this term.

Jennifer Kretchmer, a tabletop gamer who has developed accessibility guides for tabletop gaming, said about wheelchairs,  "it’s a tool, just like a wrench, just like your armor, or your shield.

The term “wheelchair user” can frame wheelchairs as “mobility aids,” as the UK Government put it. Many believe the term “wheelchair user” dismantles the common stereotype that wheelchairs impede, not improve, people’s ease of movement. It instead shows how wheelchairs empower those who use them. Wheelchairs allow them to go anywhere accessible that they desire.

Person with support needs

A term to describe people with disabilities’ areas of functioning with which they may need support. Many people with disabilities prefer this term instead of functioning labels. Advocate Finn Gardener argued in a piece for Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism that:

Instead of talking about functioning labels, we should talk about the specific kinds of support people need. Professionals should treat autistic people and other people with disabilities as individuals that have their own needs instead of just saying that they are high- or low-functioning. Everyone is different and deserves help that will make sure they live the best life they can.

In other words, people such as Gardener believe that the term “support needs” frames people’s needs as something they have, not something that defines who they are.

"Don'ts" in People-First Language

Handicapped

A controversial term to describe people with disabilities as well as services for people with disabilities, such as parking. Many people with disabilities find this word offensive.

The USDA Forest Service, Technology and Development explained that:

It is important to understand that there are negative connotations to the term "handicapped" when referring to a person who has a disability. The word has been around for centuries, but was not used to refer to people with disabilities until the late 1800s. Many people believe that the term "handicapped" was first used in relation to individuals who have disabilities when Civil War veterans whose injuries prevented them from working were begging on the streets with "cap in hand." Standard references do not support this story. But because the story has become legend and begging for a living is degrading, describing people with disabilities as "handicapped" is offensive.

In the same vein, both the Ohio and New Jersey governments have suspended the use of the term “handicapped parking” to describe parking for people with disabilities. They have replaced the term with “accessible parking.”

Crippled

A derogatory term for people with physical disabilities that many people with disabilities find offensive.

Still My Revolution laid out the negative connotations, saying how the word “means to break or make unworkable.”

Forbes contributor Andrew Pulrang explained why the term is so reviled:

The harm of terms and uses like this is indirect, but no less real. They all reinforce the idea that a good way to describe bad things is to compare them to disabilities, or to disabled people. They may not be personally offensive against any particular disabled person. But they contribute to ableism, which harms disabled people by validating discriminatory assumptions about disabled people. At the very least, we should rethink how we use these terms, including in situations where it may seem harmless.

Many believe that the use of the word Crippled, whether intentional or not, is harmful in any context. 

Wheelchair-bound

A term to describe people who use wheelchairs that many wheelchair users find offensive. As Brown University’s Student Accessibility Services put it, the term “defines a person's disability as a limitation.”

Tony Trott of New Mobility Magazine noted that wheelchairs do not confine their users, in fact, “a wheelchair does pretty much the opposite for those of us who use them; they enable us and they are extremely liberating devices.”

Citizens for Accessible Neighborhoods’ Heather McCain said that:

For many people, myself included, a wheelchair offers freedom in smaller, more everyday ways, that are just as important. I was able to take transit, go grocery shopping, go to movies with friends, walk the Vancouver Seawall, and volunteer in my community. I didn’t do flips or compete in Paris, but I did get out of my house, I did have a full life, and I did have mobility and freedom thanks to my wheelchair.

Wheelchairs are the tools which enable people with mobility issues to go about their daily lives, whatever that entails. Wheelchairs are tools for mobility, and therefore the terminology of “wheelchair bound” or “confined to a wheelchair” should be eliminated.

Your community is your guide

While People-First Language is often preferred and considered best practice, there are also those who argue that their disability is an inseparable part of who they are.  For example, the phrase "disabled person", places the role a person's disability plays in their life and overall identity front and center.  

In this context, the phrase disabled person is meant to show how integral a person’s disability is to their identity and life experience. It is meant to make people associate someone with their disability. 

People may use the term with additional layered meanings. Some people may use this phrase to convey the idea that:

  • A person is proud of, or at least not ashamed of, their disability.
  • A person’s belief that society’s lack of accessibility and acceptance of certain abilities disables people with those abilities. In other words, a person is rendered disabled not by their abilities or lack thereof. Instead, society renders them disabled. It prevents people from using their abilities to their greatest potential, or it devalues their abilities.
  • A person considers their disability as an identity category, similar to one’s religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
  • A person considers their disability to be a political statement. They consider the disability community as a constituency with unique needs and goals, thus highlighting the “disability” part of their identity for others to notice.

It’s important to note that some people may agree with one or many of the above bullet points even if they identify as a “person with a disability.” Every community and individual’s relationship with their disability can be complex and even contradictory.

In truth, there is no all-purpose way to talk about disability, the best way to do it is with the disability community. 

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