People-First Language– To Use or Not to Use?

Have you ever felt like someone judged you based on your perceived identity? Like they picked just one part of you and used stereotypes to assume many other things about you, based on that one quality? As with any social group, many people with disabilities have expressed frustration that one aspect of their identity– their disability– led others to assume many other things about them. When we define people by their disabilities, we remove all other, perhaps more empowering, aspects of their identity. This can dehumanize individuals with disabilities. One way that we can begin to focus on the person before their disability is by using people-first language.

Instead of saying “special needs children,” we can say, “children with special needs.”

Instead of calling someone “autistic boy,” we can say, “boy with autism.”

Instead of “handicapped girl,” try, “girl who uses a wheelchair.”

In these instances, we are no longer using disabilities as adjectives to describe a person’s defining quality. We are just indicating that their disability is one thing about that person. We don’t put disability before an acknowledgement that this is first and foremost a person. Using people-first language allows us to see more clearly the person’s other qualities, such as his beautiful singing voice, her astounding math skills, or his ability to consistently shoot successful layups. These are the kinds of things we want to associate with our kids’ identities– their strengths. Instead of using their disabilities as defining adjectives, we can highlight their abilities and empower them to take pride in their talents and successes.

There have been arguments for the other side here, too. The arena where this debate is most common is specifically around “autistic” vs. “person with autism.” Many advocates have said that since autism is inherently part of who they are and shapes how they view themselves, others, and the world around them, it should be included as a describing adjective of their identity. They believe that “person with autism” indicates that autism is something that can be separated from who they are, and that is simply not true. They also believe that when people advocate for separating autism from their identity, it is because those people see autism as a negative quality, which it is not. It is not inherently negative or positive. To read more on these differing perspectives, click here.

These arguments definitely resonate with me. I believe the motives behind either expression are the same– empowering, including, and informing. For me, I choose to use people-first language as a default. A person’s disability is not a negative thing, and it is inherently part of who he or she is, but I would prefer to highlight other qualities of that person and other specific talents he or she possesses. Similarly, I would rather someone highlight my specific skill set over the way I look or act. If possible, I ask the person (or his/her parents, if the person is a little one) which they prefer. When in doubt, you can always ask! That way, you know you are using the wording which makes everyone feel the most comfortable.

Above all else, it is important to highlight each child’s individuality– his or her personal talents, strengths, abilities. By recognizing and celebrating children’s differences, you will empower them to take pride in their work, set even higher goals, and ultimately accomplish them! Each of us has so much more to offer than you can tell just by looking at us.

–Written by Elise Hopkins, KIT Blog Editor

Kids Included Together (KIT) is a non-profit located in San Diego, CA and Washington, DC. We help make the world a more inclusive place by providing live and online training to people who work with kids. We teach strategies, accommodations and best practices to include kids with and without disabilities in before & after school programs. Inclusive environments create stronger communities. Learn more about our work at

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