Using Person-First Language When Describing People With Disabilities

boy in wheelchair doing school project at a table with other kids

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Person-first language is often considered the most respectful way to talk about disabilities and differences. It places the focus on the individual and not the issue he or she has. For example, someone might say, "they're ADHD" to describe a child with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Using person-first language, this would change to "the child who has ADHD."

You may have heard and even said things like "they're learning disabled" (instead of "they have a learning disability") without much thought, but such remarks can be hurtful, especially to children with special needs.

It may understandably take some time and effort to get used to using person-first language, but the effort is worth it. Speaking and writing this way communicates that you define an individual by their whole person, not their disability. It also conveys that you understand that someone is living with an issue—not that their disability or difference is their whole life.

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. E.g. Sam has epilepsy (instead of Sam's an epileptic).

Considerations and Perspectives

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 shift is subtle but powerful.

It is important to note, however, that people with disabilities have their own preferences about how to discuss their differences. These may be highly individual or aligned with some consistent preferences among people in certain groups.

For example, in some deaf communities, it is preferable to say, "they're deaf," rather than "they have deafness." In some communities of the blind, "they're blind" is favored over "they have blindness." Some others may prefer to say, "person without sight."

When in doubt, observe and listen to the language used by a person with a disability or difference, and take your cues from what is said.

While organizations such as the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association recommend that writers utilize person-first language, some researchers have suggested that this linguistic approach may have potential drawbacks.

One editorial published in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry suggested that the use of such terminology in academic and professional writing may actually highlight and perpetuate disability stigma.

Alternatives to Person-First Terminology

One of the major competing linguistic models is known as identify-first language. This approach suggests that "disabled" is not a label to be shunned or avoided.

People may not be their disability, but they may consider their disability an important part of their identity, as in the deafness example above.

Using this model, the condition is the first word used when talking about or identifying someone with a disability. For example, rather than describing the individual as a "person with autism" (as person-first language would suggest), identify-first language would recommend saying "an autistic person."

A Word From Verywell

The intent of person-first language and terminology is to discuss disabilities in a way that highlights the personhood of the individual involved. It's an approach that is favored by many, though—like anything else—perhaps not all.

It's helpful for everyone to be aware of how words they say may be interpreted in a way that doesn't match their intent—even when purposeful steps are being taken to be respectful. In the end, if someone is upset because of something you said, a sincere apology can help, as can asking them what they would have preferred you say and why.

If you'd like to learn more, the ADA National Network, a civil rights group for people with disabilities, has a reference for writers that anyone interested in person-first language may benefit from.

4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Collier R. Person-first language: What it means to be a "person"CMAJ. 2012;184(18):E935-E936. doi:10.1503/cmaj.109-4322

  2. Crocker AF, Smith SN. Person-first language: Are we practicing what we preachJ Multidiscip Healthc. 2019;12:125-129. doi:10.2147/JMDH.S140067

  3. Gernsbacher MA. Editorial perspective: The use of person-first language in scholarly writing may accentuate stigma. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2017;58(7):859-861. doi:10.1111/jcpp.12706

  4. Kenny L, Hattersley C, Molins B, Buckley C, Povey C, Pellicano E. Which terms should be used to describe autism? Perspectives from the UK autism communityAutism. 2016;20(4):442‐462. doi:10.1177/1362361315588200

Additional Reading

By Ann Logsdon
Ann Logsdon is a school psychologist specializing in helping parents and teachers support students with a range of educational and developmental disabilities.