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People-First Language: The Missing Page In Your Stylebook?

by | May 18, 2010 | Plain Language Writing Courses, Writing Matters Blog | 4 comments

Today, I was an invited speaker at the National Association of Government Communicators’ annual Communications School conference in Bethesda, Maryland. Before my session, I attended a wonderful presentation: “A Market You Can’t Miss: People with Disabilities” by Juliette Rizzo (Director, Exhibits and Agency-wide Outreach, U.S. Department of Education) and Valerie Suber (Public Information Director, Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities). Valerie distributed a handout on People-First Language, “a way of communicating that reflects respect for people with disabilities by choosing words that portray them accurately.”

Though I wasn’t able to find Valerie’s handout at her Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities site, I did find an excellent guide, which presents many of the same concepts, at the Arc of Washington State site. This handout, The Missing Page In Your Stylebook: People-First Language, offers tips for reporting on people with disabilities, such as:

  • “Do not define individuals by their disabilities. Put People First, not their disability.”
  • Do not portray successful people with disabilities as superhuman. This raises false expectations that all people with disabilities should be high achievers.”
  • Do not sensationalize a disability by using such language as ‘afflicted with, ‘crippled,’ ‘suffers from,’ ‘confined to a wheelchair,’ ‘wheelchair-bound,’ etc.”

The handout also offers a list of People-First Language Preferred Expressions:

Say/Write … Instead of …
Has paraplegia Paraplegic
Child with autism Autistic
Adult with Down Syndrome      Mongoloid
 Non-disabled Normal
 Nonverbal Mute
 Person who has …  Suffers from …

I am eager to learn how you and your organization strive to use People-First Language. Let me know or post a comment here.

— Leslie O’Flahavan

Tags: Grammar and usage, Plain language, Style guides


  1. Excellent resource, thanks – it’s always a challenge to change people’s language around illness and disability. I worked for an AIDS service organization in the early ’90’s when ‘victim’ was commonly used to describe a person with AIDS or HIV. We had many briefings with media and spokespeople not to use the ‘v’ word – it mostly stuck!
    Currently we’re facing new legislation in Ontario that requires service workers to have sensitivity training for people with disabilities. R

  2. Posted on behalf of Lisa Danielson of http://www.deborahsplace.org/
    Hi Leslie,
    I enjoyed reading your May 18 post about “Person First” language. My organization works to break the cycle of homelessness for women in Chicago, and we are constantly trying to reinforce that homelessness is an experience and not a defining characteristic of our participants. Thus, we impact “women who are homeless” or “women who have experienced homelessness”, rather than “homeless women”!
    Thank you for promoting this important concept in your blog.

  3. Posted — with per mission — on behalf of Bonnie Wahiba:
    Please stop calling my daughter’s birth mother her “real” mother. (What does that make me?) Also, my daughter is a person first; being adopted is incidental. So she shouldn’t be called “my adopted daughter” but rather my daughter who is adopted. Better yet, don’t even mention she is adopted. That’s her story. Most egregious is when the parents of birth children and an adopted child are described as having three children and an adopted child. Lots of this happens in well-regarded media.

  4. Posted — with permission — on behalf of Ellen Wilson Fielding
    While I think the underlying point is fine, some of the list of preferable terms for people with disabilities I have problems with. “Nonverbal” is one, since “verbal” usually introduces that confusing “are we talking about writing or speaking?” issue. Something like non-speaking or non-talking would be simpler and clearer.
    Also, except perhaps when making a series of comparisons between those with certain disabilities and those without, using “non-disabled” for someone without the disabilities in question seems kind of bizarre and even Orwellian. I understand the distaste for being called by implication “abnormal,” but the “non-disabled” solution seems to define human abilities in terms of disabilities. We do in fact judge disabilities in relation to a human norm. We don’t call humans who can’t fly “disabled,” because it is not normal (statistically) for human beings to fly. Maybe there is a term besides “normal” that seems to carry less baggage or applies in a more narrow way (since we often use “not normal” to refer to mental disorders, for example), but I’d shy from merely taking a word that describes a disability and then sticking a “dis” or “un” in front of it routinely as a solution.

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