This blog was written by Erin Hawley, Communications Consultant for the National Aging & Disability Transportation Center.
Language evolves over time along with the ways we perceive and understand disability. Therefore, it makes sense that how we talk about disability has changed drastically over the years. As a 37-year-old physically disabled woman, I have witnessed many of these changes – I went from being referred to as “crippled” or “handicapped” to “person with a disability” or “disabled”. For people outside the disability community, knowing what terms to use can be confusing. People with disabilities are not a monolith; what words one person finds offensive or incorrect, another person will prefer. This blog post will explore the two most common ways society refers to those with disabilities and the rationale behind each.
Person-first language (e.g., “person with a disability”) is largely considered the default or most respectful terminology to use, as it puts the person first before their disability; it is a way to separate someone’s diagnosis from their personhood. The meaning behind this is to recognize an individual the same way you would recognize an able-bodied person, rather than boiling someone’s identity down to just their disability. The Americans with Disabilities Act was crafted using person-first language; it was certainly preferred over outdated terms such as “handicapped,” “crippled,” or “lame.” The push for person-first language in the 80s and 90s was a victory for the disability community when that phrasing was used in legislation.
In recent years, some people with disabilities are pushing for identity-first language (e.g., “disabled person”) that centers on disability while still recognizing personhood. Identity-first language was born from the disability pride movement, which positions that disability is nothing to be ashamed of. Disabled people who prefer identity-first language often think that person-first language furthers the notion that having a disability is shameful; they ask, “why do you have to separate someone from their disability in order to see them as people?” Also, they argue, the phrase “disabled person” still has the word “person” in it – and you don’t truly “see” them if you don’t acknowledge their disabilities.
It is worth mentioning that people with disabilities who don’t want to use identity-first language are not necessarily ashamed of their disabilities – they may have a different relationship to them, or they simply don’t have a language preference either way. Conversely, some disabled people who use identity-first language don’t care if you use person-first. For example, I use “disabled person” to refer to myself and identity-first language in my personal writing – but if someone refers to me as a “person with a disability,” I am generally okay with it if I understand their intention. In my experience, even when someone refers to me as a “person with a disability,” that doesn’t mean they see me as a full person. Actions are what make a difference.
So, which terms should you use? It depends on context. If you are communicating with someone one-on-one, just ask them what they prefer. If you are writing something for a larger audience, it is usually best if default to person-first. . Either way, asking first is always the best thing to do. The University of Kansas’ Research and Training Center on Independent Living recently published guidelines on how to write about people with disabilities, and it goes into more detail about the ways we talk and write about specific disabilities. Overall, the words we use matter, and we should always consider how language affects how we view people with disabilities – or disabled people.