People First Language


To achieve
for people with disabilities,
we must use
People First Language
A commentary by Kathie Snow
The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.
Mark Twain
•   •   •   •   • •   •   •   •   • •   •   •   •   • •   •   •   •   • •   •   •   •   •
The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names.
Old Chinese Proverb
Who are “the handicapped” . . . the “disabled”?
Society’s myths tell us they are:
• people who “suffer” from the “tragedy” of “birth defects” . . .
• paraplegic “heroes” “struggling” to become “normal” . . .
• “victims” of diseases “fighting” to regain their lives . . .
• categorically . . . “the disabled, the retarded, the autistic, the blind, the deaf, the learning disabled” and more.
Who are they, really?
They are moms and dads and sons and daughters . . . employees and employers .. scientists (Stephen Hawking) . . . friends and neighbors . . . movie stars (Marlee Matlin) . . . leaders and followers . . . students and teachers . . .they are . . . people. They are people.
They are people, first.
Are you myopic or do you wear glasses?
Are you cancerous or do you have cancer?
Are you freckled or do you have freckles?
Are you handicapped/disabled or do you have a disability?
People First Language describes what a person HAS, not what a person IS!
People First Language puts the person before the disability.
Disability has been defined as a body function that operates differently.
Contrast that meaning with:
A published origin of “handicap” refers to “hand in cap,” a game where winners were penalized or put at a disadvantage.
A legendary origin of the word refers to a person with a disability having to beg on the street with “cap in hand.”
“Handicapped,” “Disabled,” or People with Disabilities:
Which description is more accurate?
Using “the handicapped,” and even “the disabled,” usually evokes negative feelings (sadness, pity, fear, and more) and creates a stereotypical perception that people with disabilities are all alike. All people who have brown hair are not alike. All people who have disabilities are not alike.
Many people who have disabilities would never think of themselves as “handicapped.”
The disability community is the largest minority group in our country. It includes people of both genders and from all religions, ethnic backgrounds, and socioeconomic levels. About the only things people with disabilities have in common with one another are 1) having a body function that operates differently and 2) facing prejudice and discrimination. Unique to the disability community is that it’s the only minority group that any American can join in the split second of an accident.
If/when it happens to you, will you have more in common with others with disabilities or with your family, friends, and co-workers?
The Disability Rights Movement is following in the footsteps of the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s and the Women’s Movement of the ‘70s. While people with disabilities and advocates work to end discrimination and segregation in education, employment, and our communities at large, we must all work to end the prejudicial language that creates an invisible barrier to being included in the ordinary mainstream of life.
“Disability is a natural condition of the human experience.”
The U.S. Developmental Disabilities Act and The Bill of Rights Act, 1993
Disability is not the “problem.” We need to rid ourselves of the word “problem” when talking about people’s needs! A person who wears glasses doesn’t walk around saying, “I have a problem seeing.” She would say, “I wear (need) glasses.” Recognize that a ”problem” is really a need.
The real problem is attitudinal barriers.
There have always been people with disabilities in our world and there always will be.
• If educators - and our society at large - perceived children with disabilities as individuals who have the potential to learn, who have the need to the same education as their brothers and sisters, and who have a future in the adult world of work, we wouldn’t have to fight for inclusive education.
• If employers - and our society at large - believed adults with disabilities have valuable job skills (because they received a quality education), we wouldn’t have to fight for real jobs for real pay in the real community.
• If business owners - and our society at large - viewed people with disabilities as consumers with money to spend (because they’re wag earners), we wouldn’t have to fight for accessible entrances and other accommodations.
Many people who do not now have a disability will have one in the future.
Others will have a family member or friend who acquires a disability. If you acquire a disability in your lifetime, how will you want to be described? How will you want to be treated? Disability issues are issues that affect all Americans!
Using People First Language is a crucial issue.
If people with disabilities are to be included in all aspects of our communities - in the very ordinary, very wonderful, very typical activities most people take for granted - then they must talk about themselves in the very ordinary, very wonderful, very typical language other people use about themselves.
• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
Children with disabilities are children, first. The only labels they need are their names! Parents must not talk about their children in the clinical terms used by medical practitioners.
A disability label is simply a medical diagnosis!
Since the parent of a child who wears glasses (medical diagnosis: myopia) doesn’t say, “My daughter is myopic.”, why does the parent of a child who has a medical diagnosis of mental retardation say, “My daughter is retarded.”?
• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
Adults with disabilities are adults, first. The only labels they need are their names! They must not talk about themselves the way service providers talk about them.
A disability label is simply a medical diagnosis!
Since an adult with a medical diagnosis of cancer doesn’t say, “I’m cancerous.”, why does an adult with a medical diagnosis of cerebral palsy say, “I’m disabled.”?
In our society, “handicapped” & “disabled” are all-encompassing terms that are misused.
• People with hearing or vision impairments don’t need “handicapped” or “disabled” parking or restrooms. People with mobility impairments do need accessible parking and restrooms.
• If a “handicapped” or “disabled” entrance has a ramp for people who use wheelchairs, does the doorway have Braille signage for people with visual impairments?
• Accommodations that enable people with disabilities to access a facility - regardless of their disabilities - are accessible!
• “Disabled” is not acceptable, either. Our society “corrupts” the meaning of certain words. When the traffic report mentions a traffic jam, you’ll often hear, “There’s a disabled vehicle on the highway.” “Disabled,” in that context, means “broken down.” People with disabilities are not broken!
• If a new toaster doesn’t work, we return it, say “It’s defective,” and get a new one! Do we do that with babies who have birth “defects”? The accurate term is “congenital disability.”
When we understand the meanings of words and how they’re misused, we realize they are the tip of the iceberg of inappropriate and unacceptable language.
When people with disabilities are referred to by their medical diagnoses, we have devalued them as human beings. When we devalue others, we devalue ourselves.
When we start calling things by their right names, when we recognize that people with disabilities are people first, we can begin to see how people with disabilities are more like people without disabilities than they are different. When we understand that disability labels are simply medical diagnoses, we can put them in their proper perspective. People who wear glasses are not “the myopic;” people with cancer are not “the cancerous.”
My son, Benjamin, is 11 years old. He loves the Lone Ranger, ice cream, and playing on the computer. He has
blonde hair, blue eyes, and cerebral palsy. His disability is only one small piece of his life. For many people with disabilities, their medical diagnoses define who they are!
When I introduce myself to people I don’t tell them I’ll never be a prima ballerina. Like others, I focus on my strengths, the things I do well, not on what I can’t do. Don’t you do the same?
I don’t say, “My son can’t write with a pencil.” I say, “My son uses a computer to do his school work.” I don’t say, “My son can’t walk.” I say, “My son uses a walker and a wheelchair.” And Benjamin isn’t “wheelchair bound.” He’s free when he uses it - free to go when and where he wants to go!
We know that a person’s self-image is strongly tied to the words used to describe that person. We’ve been told that descriptions can become a self- fulfilling prophecy. If a child is told she is stupid or slow or lazy, she will probably become that. If told she’s brilliant, she’ll probably become that.
People with disabilities, having been described by their medical diagnoses all their lives, often must convince themselves that they are capable and have potential for success. Parents must convince themselves and their children that their kids are capable and have potential for success. If you don’t believe in yourself, it’s hard for others to believe in you!
We have the power to change all this for current and future generations. People First Language can change how people with disabilities feel about themselves. People First Language can change how society views and treats people with disabilities.
Benjamin goes ballistic when he hears “handicapped.” I hope when he’s grown, labels will be extinct.
People First Language is right. Just do it - NOW!
Examples of People First Language
Labels Not to Use People First Language
the handicapped or disabled people with disabilities
the mentally retarded people with mental retardation
he’s retarded he has a cognitive impairment
my son is autistic my son has autism
she’s a Downs kid, a Mongoloid she has Down syndrome
he’s learning disabled he has a learning disability
I’m a paraplegic I have paraplegia
she’s crippled she has a physical disability
she has a mobility impairment
he’s a dwarf (or midget) he’s of short stature
she’s emotionally disturbed she has an emotional disability
he’s wheelchair bound or he uses a wheelchair
confined to a wheelchair or a mobility chair
normal and/or healthy kids typical kids or kids without disabilities
he’s in special ed he receives special ed services
birth defect congenital disability
handicapped parking, bathrooms, etc. accessible parking, bathrooms, etc.
she has a problem with . . . she has a need for . . .
Keep thinking! There are lots more examples out there!
And practice, practice, practice. Old habits die hard!
This document may be copied in its entirety. As a courtesy, please let me
know you’ll be using it.
Kathie Snow, 250 Sunnywood Lane, Woodland Park, CO 80863-9434
Voice 719-687-8194, Fax 687-8114, e-mail:
(Rev. 1/98)
 Page updated: 4/98

Home / What is HNPP? / Other names for HNPP / Varieties of HNPP / HNPP Symptoms / The Genetics of HNPP / Number of People affected / Getting Diagnosed / The Genetic Test / Progression / HNPP Articles and Other Links of Interest / Other Organizations supporting HNPP / Q and A/FAQs / Prevention is key / Conservative management of HNPP / Toxic drug List / Surgery and HNPP / Letter to Surgical Team / Helpful hints by and for people with HNPP / People Say this works for them / Join HNPP e-mail support group / Life with HNPP / Survey of individuals with HNPP / Personal Stories / Significant HNPP Symptoms / Pain / Learning to Pace Activity / Adapting the house, etc / Equipment fundiing / Doctors who treat HNPP / HNPP Researchers / HNPP Experts / Research Studies / Disability and ADA / People First language / Tax Deductions / Glossary / Contact Maureen