Should I say 'disabled' or 'person with disability'?

A guide to person first language

Hi, I’m Lucy.

What should you call me? Lucy.

That is my name. I use a talker. I can tell you my name on my talker if you want to know.

I love to welcome new people when they come to the site. Also, I want you to know that my favourite animal is a giraffe.

We often get people asking us whether to say ‘disabled person’ or ‘person with disability’. and it’s a tricky one to answer because there’s no hard and fast rule. It essentially comes down to what the people you are referring to prefer.

Some people like person-first language, and some people would prefer you use identity-first language. And if you’re reading this and not sure what those terms mean, here’s a quick rundown: 

Person-first is when you put the person before the disability in the phrase and is often referred to something that people have.

This looks like:

  • People with disability
  • Anne has a disability
  • I have autism

Identity-first is the disability is part of your identity, so you use it more like an adjective.

This looks like:

  • Disabled people
  • Anne is disabled
  • I am autistic

Why language is so important

There’s a lot of power in the words you use. Anyone who’s ever been bullied or called names knows the power words have to hurt us, and unfortunately the disability community has a long history of offensive and hurtful words used against us.

That’s why it’s so important we get it right now.

By using someone’s preferred language, you are letting them know you respect them.

Why some people prefer person-first language

Person-first language quite literally puts the person first. It’s a way to put the focus on the person rather than the disability. For instance, you may prefer to be referred to as “person with intellectual disability” than “intellectually disabled person”.

This kind of terminology encourages people to look beyond the disability. The disability is part of who we are, but it doesn’t define us. 

This is also generally the more PC term to use. It is a safer bet, especially if you are not a member of the disability community. If you are in doubt, it’s a good way to start. It’s what a lot of journalists and government organisations tend to use.

Why some people prefer identity-first language

Disability is nothing to be ashamed of. Lots of people are proud to be disabled. This is a big reason why people often embrace identity-first language.

In recent years, there’s been a bit of a push towards this kind of language, especially with younger people. This is heartening as it is a tangible way to see stigma around disability lessening. People who choose identity-first language sometimes feel person-first language makes disability seem like something to be ashamed of.

Some disability communities have been using identity-first language all along. Perhaps the two most notable examples are the blind and deaf communities. When you say things like ‘people with blindness’ it just sounds weird.

The verdict?

If you’re talking to or about an individual, it’s a no brainer - just call them by their name.

With the right intentions, both person-first and identity-first language are trying to do the same thing - communicate respectfully.

The best thing to do if you’re not sure is allow the communities you’re speaking to define themselves. Ask what they prefer. It can really be that simple.

Some wording to avoid when talking about disability Some terminology is best to avoid. Here’s a rundown of some wording to definitely steer.

Don’t say Instead, say Why?
He has special needs He has an intellectual disability He may feel patronised by the word “special”
She is differently abled She has a disability She doesn’t need to feel more different than she already might
He is handicapped He has a disability Just because he has a disability doesn’t mean he is necessarily handicapped from leading a normal life
She is mentally disabled She has an intellectual disability This has negative historical connotations
He is crippled He has a disability The word “crippled” actually means damaged or flawed and is an insensitive way to describe a person with a disability
Normal People who don’t have disability Normal doesn’t really exist. By using this word it implies that people with a disability are abnormal.

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