People First Language

People First Language Guide

The dos and don'ts of People First Language

Diversity and inclusion are increasingly becoming important topics of discussion as we work toward a more equitable society. This communication is a positive step toward incorporating meaningful change that will help all members of our communities thrive.

In advocating with people with disabilities, it’s important to use language that’s inclusive to everyone.

What is People First Language?

People First Language is inclusive language that focuses on defining individuals as multi-faceted human beings rather than defining them by the perceived limitations of a disability. Simply put, it’s the practice of putting a person before a diagnosis.

For example, People First Language uses terms like ‘people with disabilities’ instead of ‘disabled people’.

Using People First Language helps to stop conscious or unconscious marginalization of people with disabilities (or any group that’s commonly defined by a condition, trait or diagnosis).

The ideas behind People First Language date back to the 1960s, with the term formally coined in 1988. Since then, the term and its practices have been widely adopted by many advocacy groups, government departments, medical practitioners, and organizations.

While it’s important to understand and practice People First Language, it’s also important to know that not everyone identifies the same way.

Like any other identifiable group of people, individuals with disabilities will have their own preferred way of referring to themselves. They will have their own preferences on how they would like you to refer to them. It’s important to respect this preference.  

The dos and don’ts

Generally speaking, there are a few guidelines that will help you use People First Language effectively.

You should always:

  • put a person before their disability so they’re not defined by their disability
  • recognize that people with disabilities have their own goals and preferences
  • promote ability and talent over limitations
  • emphasize assistive devices as enabling rather than limiting.

You should not:

  • use words with negative or patronizing connotations such as ‘victim of’, afflicted by’ or ‘suffers from’
  • portray successful people with disabilities as heroic, brave or superhuman
  • use euphemisms such as ‘differently abled’ or ‘special needs’
  • be afraid to ask someone how they prefer to identify.

Preferred expressions

Language is a living and changing thing. As we evolve so too does the language that we use. Learning and practicing People First Language is a continual process. What’s preferred today may change in the future.

The most important aspect is to use language in a way that emphasizes the person first.

With that in mind, here are some examples of People First Language and the outdated terms and phrases they replace:

Say or write ... Instead of ...
Person who has Afflicted, suffers from, victim of
Person who has a disability Disabled person, handicapped
Individual living with a developmental disability Developmentally disabled
Child with autism Autistic child
Person who uses a wheelchair Wheelchair-bound, confined to a wheelchair
Communicates using (a letterboard, sign language, etc) Nonverbal, mute
Developmental delay Slow
Emotional disorder/mental illness Crazy, insane
Person with epilepsy Epileptic person
He/she has Down Syndrome
They have Down Syndrome
He/she is Down's
They are Down's
An adult with a physical disability Physically disabled, handicapped, crippled
Accessible buses
Accessible parking
Accessible bathrooms
Handicapped buses
Handicapped parking
Handicapped bathrooms
Congenital disability Birth defect
He/she uses
They use
He/she has special needs
They have special needs
Children without disabilities Normal or healthy children
Person with paraplegia Paraplegic
Person with quadriplegia Quadriplegic
Person who is hard of hearing Hearing impaired, suffers from hearing loss
Person who is successful, productive Person who has overcome his/her/their disability, is corageous
Brain injury Brain damaged
He/she has a learning disability
They have a learning disability
He/she is learning disabled
They are learning disabled