About Disability


Talking about disability needs to be inclusive and respectful. In the past decade, many people have shifted from preferring people-first language to identity-first language. So, what’s the difference?

People-First Language

“People-First Language” puts the person before the disability and describes what a person has, not who a person is. It uses phrases such as “girl with Down syndrome” and “boy with autism.” It does not use phrases that identify people based solely on their disability. People First Language recognizes that someone’s disability is just part of who they are and not a definition of who they are.

Identity-First Language

“Identity-First Language” makes the disability an identity category and an integral part of that person. In this ideology, “disabled” is a perfectly acceptable way for a person to identify. You do not need to go out of your way to disassociate a person from their disability. As an identity category, the diagnosis is a fundamental part of them. Disability does not merely describe an individual body or mind, it indicates membership within a wider cultural group.

It’s always best to ask someone which words or phrases they prefer, but you’ll find some best practices below. You can find some quick tips below. You can also find a list of common terms and definitions here

In healthcare settings, doctors and other professionals often use diagnostic language. Advocates are working with the medical community to push for language to be less clinical and more respectful for patients. The term “Mental Retardation” is no longer acceptable, even as a medical diagnosis. It should never be used. Advocates have been successful in getting this phrase removed from federal and state laws.”

Quick Tips

Always use care and precision when writing or talking about disabilities and people with disabilities. Consider the impact of specific words and the preferences of the people involved.

Avoid descriptions that connote pity, such as “afflicted with” or “suffers from,” because these terms carry the assumption that the disabled person is living a reduced quality of life. 

Don’t use disability euphemisms like “handicapable” or “differently abled.” You can just say disability, unless someone has asked you not to use it. 

Some people also find the term “special needs” hurtful because every person has needs: having a disability does not make their needs “special.”  

Avoid language that uses disability as an insult, such as “What are you, deaf?,” as well as words like lame, dumb, cripple, idiot, insane, midget, stupid, and spaz, which have been used to make fun of people with disabilities.