Use Person First Language to Describe People With Disabilities

Focus on the person; not the disability

A student in a wheelchair.
A student in a wheelchair.. Christopher Futcher/Getty Images

Person first language is the most sensitive, or politically correct way, to talk about disabilities. When discussing children with disabilities, people often use the disability to describe the whole person. They may remark, for example, "He's ADHD," or "He's a Down's kid."

We have all heard and probably said these things without much thought, but such remarks can be hurtful to children with special needs.

Person first language is an alternative way to talk about children's disabilities that places the focus on the person and not the disability. To use person first language, simply say the person's name or use a pronoun first, follow it with the appropriate verb and then state the name of the disability.

Examples of Person First Language

Instead of saying, "He's ADHD" or "She's learning disabled," use statements such as "David has Down's Syndrome" or "Susan is a child with a learning disability." Rather than saying, "That building has a disabled program," you would say, "That building houses a program for people who have disabilities."

Using person first language takes more time. Writing it requires more words to describe people and programs. However, using person first person language shifts our focus from the disability and the disorder in question to the person. It makes us think about the person as coping with a disability rather than thinking of them only in terms of their disability.

People with disabilities are first and foremost people; their disabilities shouldn't overshadow their humanity.

The Benefits of Person First Language

Many disability advocates believe that using person first language helps teachers, therapists, parents and service providers remember they are working with a person who has dignity, feelings, and rights.

They are not a disability or a disease. They are people with a disability or disease. This subtle but powerful language shift helps us view people with disabilities as capable and deserving of respect.

It is important to note, however, that some people with disabilities have their own preferences about how we discuss their disability. For example, in some deaf communities, it is preferable to say, "He's deaf," rather than "He has deafness." On the other hand, you might say, "He has a hearing impairment."

In some communities of the blind, it is preferred that we say, "He's blind" rather than "He has blindness." Furthermore, some communities of the blind prefer to say "person without sight." On the other hand, one can also say, "He has a visual impairment."

When in doubt, you can observe and listen to the language used by a person with disabilities and take your cues from what is said. You may also ask if teachers or persons with disabilities in your area are willing to share their preferences with you.

If all else fails and you accidentally offend someone, a sincere apology can help.

Wrapping Up

The goal is to discuss disabilities in a way that highlights the personhood of the individual involved. In many cases, having a disability doesn't define one's entire life, so others shouldn't describe a disability as if it's the single most important aspect of a person's existence.

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