People First Language

By Allison Curtis 

The way that we talk about people determines, and is determined by, how our society values certain characteristics over others. We can take a few easy steps to shift our perspectives on the way we talk about identity and ability. By recognizing that each individual is a person first, and not identified solely by their disabilities, we can begin to create a paradigm shift that will encourage our society to value every person as an individual with unique abilities, gifts, and needs. As noted in Katie Snow’s work on People First Language:

Disability diagnoses are, unfortunately, often used to define a person’s value and potential and low expectations and a dismal future are the predicted norm. Too often, we make decisions about how/where the person will be educated, whether he’ll work or not, where/how he’ll live, and what services are offered based on the person’s medical diagnosis, instead of the person’s unique and individual strengths and needs (Snow).

While there are quite a few misconceptions and misunderstandings about people with developmental disabilities, the purpose of this article is not to outline those misconceptions, but rather to give a few simple tips that can be used to speak appropriately to and about our peers. It is important to remember that everyone has abilities and disabilities and we all deserve to be celebrated for our strengths and not defined by the things that we may lack.

People First Language “puts the person before the disability and describes what a person has, not who a person is” (Snow). There are times when we must talk about the particular barriers that exist in our lives, and in these cases we can use People First Language.


A person who has a developmental disability.   

Rather than:

A developmentally disabled person.


Children without disabilities.

Rather than:

Normal children.


Danny uses a wheelchair.

Rather than:

Danny is wheelchair bound. (This description makes a wheelchair sound like a punishment, rather than a tool that someone can use to navigate the world.)


Person who has visibility impairment.

Rather than:

Blind person.

The words that we use generate attitudes about those who we speak of and by simply acknowledging someone is a person first we can begin to value everyone for their abilities.


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