Disability Language: How to Refer to Persons with Disabilities?

Disability Language Guide

Identity-first vs Person-first language: Which Do We Use to Refer to Persons with Disabilities?


Simple Answer

Always ask the person or the community, and respect their preference.

However, if you do not have a chance to ask, please use the language preferred by the community’s majority.

Some communities prefer identity-first language, as they consider their disabilities as being fundamental to who they are as a person. The blind, Deaf and autistic communities prefer identity-first language.

Some communities prefer the person-first language, such as people with intellectual disabilities.


Long Answer

The use of person-first or identity-first language is an ongoing important conversation that requires thoughtful and sensitive consideration.

People who use the person-first language, i.e., person with disability, do so to emphasise that they are first and foremost a person, and that their disability do not define them as a person.

Meanwhile, many disability advocates who prefer identity-first language explain that disability cannot be separated from who they are as a person; that disability does define how they live their everyday lives, and how that lived experience shapes their identity. Also, more importantly, disability is something that they should not be ashamed of.

When we look closely at the arguments from both sides, they have one thing in common: to “recognise, affirm, and validate an individual’s identity” as a person with disability, or disabled person.

The choice to use person-first or identity-first language to describe themselves is a personal one, which is influenced by each individual’s personal experience and reflection of their experience as a person with disability.

What is important is that we always ask, and respect their choice about how they prefer to be described.


Further Reading

Identity-first vs. person-first language is an important distinction by Tara Haelle in Association of Health Care Journalists

I am Disabled: On Identity-First Versus People-First Language by Cara Liebowitz in The Body is Not An Apology

‘Autistic Person’ Or ‘Person With Autism’: Is There A Right Way To Identify People? by Molly Callahan in News@Northeastern

(Please note that the puzzle piece symbol used in the article’s graphics are not endorsed or supported by the autistic community)

How "Differently Abled" Marginalises Disabled People by Lydia X.Z. Brown

Don't Call Disabled People 'Differently Abled' by Carly Fox


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