You Should Always Use People First Language when Talking about People with Disabilities

Words have power. Self-advocates with intellectual disabilities have clearly stated that negative language leads to harmful action, discrimination, abuse, negative stereotypes, disenfranchisement, and violence. “Retard” and “retarded” are derogatory and dehumanizing terms — on par with the N-word used to describe African Americans, and various hateful terms used to describe members of the Jewish, gay and lesbian, and other minority communities. In addition, words and labels can cause others to think that people with intellectual disabilities are not able to achieve the things that others can achieve.

The self-advocacy movement led by people with developmental disabilities has fought for years to eliminate the use of the term ‘mental retardation’ due to its incredibly harmful impact on their lives. There is consensus nationwide among the disability community to replace the term with one that is more respectful: ‘people with intellectual disabilities.’

People with disabilities do not want to be labeled and they do not want to be defined by their particular disability or disabilities. Disability is a natural part of the human experience, an aspect of human diversity, like other areas of human variation. Therefore it is preferable to use “people first” language that places the emphasis on the person instead of on the disability. For example, instead of saying “the disabled” it is preferable to say “person with a disability.” Instead of “the epileptic,” say “person with epilepsy.” Instead of “developmentally disabled,” use “person with developmental disabilities.” Other examples include: “person with cerebral palsy,” “person with intellectual disabilities,” “person with autism,” “a person who is blind, deaf,” etc.

People with disabilities also do not want to be referred to as a victim or object of pity. People with disabilities are not victims. Disability is just one aspect of the person. Avoid using “suffers from,” “afflicted with,” “bound,” “confined,” “sentenced to,” “prisoner,” “victim,” or any other term that implies tragedy. For example, instead of writing “wheelchair-bound” or “confined to a wheelchair” use “person who uses a wheelchair.” Instead of “victim of quadriplegia,” use “person with quadriplegia” or “people with paraplegia.”

1 Comment on You Should Always Use People First Language when Talking about People with Disabilities

  1. My grandson and his mother are persons with intellectual disabilities and/or developmental delays. I appreciate your post, and can only echo the importance of language. Children especially can be cruel to those who are different. If they hear the derogatory language they will repeat it. It is up to adults, particularly those in a position to influence children, to use the proper terms. My grandson is hurt by use of the r-word, even though he does not fully understand what it means. He knows he is being insulted and disrespected by his peers, and he has trouble coming up with the language to respond.

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