People First Language

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People First Language (PFL) is a way of communicating that reflects knowledge and respect for people with disabilities by choosing words that recognize the person first and foremost as the primary reference and not his or her disability.

Compiled by GCDD primarily for media professionals, the PFL style guide promotes the elimination of the "R Word" from public and private discourse and similar tips that can also be applied to everyday use by other professions and the general public. You'll note with PFL, emphasis is placed on the person first, rather than the disability, thereby putting the focus and subject on the person. It is our hope that everyone adopts this language, but particularly that journalists lead the way through their reporting. Feel free to refer to PFL often as you would an AP Stylebook.

Example: “John is the writer who has a disability” rather than “John is a disabled writer.”

Distinction between Disability and Handicap

A Disability is a condition caused by an accident, trauma, genetics or disease, which may limit a person's mobility, hearing, vision, speech or mental function. Some people with disabilities have more than one disability.

A Handicap is a physical or attitudinal constraint that is imposed upon a person, regardless of whether that person has a disability. Webster's defines handicap as “to put at a disadvantage.”

Example of Correct Usage: Some people with disabilities use wheelchairs. Stairs, narrow doorways and curbs are handicaps imposed upon people who use wheelchairs.

Tips for reporting on people with disabilities**

Do not focus on disability unless it is crucial to a story. Focus instead on issues that affect the quality of life of those same individuals, such as accessible transportation, housing, affordable health care, employment opportunities, or discrimination.

Do not portray successful people with disabilities as superhuman
. This raises false expectations that all people with disabilities should be high achievers.

Do not sensationalize a disability by using such language as “afflicted with,” “crippled,” “suffers from,” “confined to a wheelchair, wheelchair-bound” etc.

Do not use generic labels for disability groups such as “the retarded” or “the deaf.” Do not define individuals by their disability.

Put People First, not their disability.

Emphasize abilities, not limitations. Show people as active participants in society. After the first People First Language reference, it’s alright to use “disabled person” as a secondary reference.

Do not use euphemisms to describe a disability.

** University of Kansas, Publications, Research and Training Center on Independent Living

People-First Language Preferred Expressions:

Say/Write…Instead of…
Child with a disability handicapped child or disabled
Individual with cerebral palsy palsied, CP or spastic
Person who has…. Afflicted, suffers from, victim of
Nonverbal (with speech) mute or dumb
Child(ren) with autism autistic
Developmental delay slow or retarded
Emotional disorder/mental illness crazy or insane
Deaf or has a hearing impairment deaf and dumb
Communicates with sign language signer
Uses a wheelchair confined to a wheelchair
Has a cognitive or intellectual disability retarded
He has epilepsy epileptic
Adult with Down syndrome mongoloid, suffers from Down syndrome
Has a learning disability is learning disabled
Has a physical disability is physically disabled/crippled
Non-disabled; with disabilities normal, healthy
Congenital disability birth defect
Condition disease (unless it IS)
Seizures fits
Cleft lip hare lip
Has mobility impairment lame or crippled
Paralyzed invalid or paralytic
Has quadriplegia quadriplegic
Has paraplegia paraplegic
Thank you for your time and willingness to hear about creating true inclusion and diversity. We hope that you will help make a difference for family members, friends, neighbors and co-workers who live with disabilities by using People First Language and encourage others to do the same. Our goal is to change public perception and create more welcoming attitudes through the words we choose. By placing emphasis on the person first, we enhance our communities because everyone knows they count!

People First Language:

These words and expressions are currently preferred and reflect a positive attitude. Some language is “trendy” and meanings may vary depending on the context. The Ideal is to incorporate these words into our language in a way that first and foremost, expresses the dignity of the person. 

Blind; blindness

Low vision; person with low vision

Vision impaired

Disabled (secondary reference)

Person with cerebral palsy

Person with a disability

Person with developmental disabilities; developmentally disabled

Person with paraplegia

Psychological/emotional disability

Wheelchair-user or uses a wheelchair

Not all people with disabilities agree on which language or terminology is preferred like any other large, yet identifiable group of people. Individuals will vary as to how they refer to themselves and how they would like you to refer to them.

Read People First Language Guidelines PDF

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