People First Language (PFL) is a way of communicating that reflects knowledge and respect for people with disabilities by choosing words that recognize the person first and foremost as the primary reference and not his or her disability.
Compiled by GCDD primarily for media professionals, the PFL style guide promotes the elimination of the "R Word" from public and private discourse and similar tips that can also be applied to everyday use by other professions and the general public. You'll note with PFL, emphasis is placed on the person first, rather than the disability, thereby putting the focus and subject on the person. It is our hope that everyone adopts this language, but particularly that journalists lead the way through their reporting. Feel free to refer to PFL often as you would an AP Stylebook.
Example: “John is the writer who has a disability” rather than “John is a disabled writer.”
Distinction between Disability and Handicap
A Disability is a condition caused by an accident, trauma, genetics or disease, which may limit a person's mobility, hearing, vision, speech or mental function. Some people with disabilities have more than one disability.
A Handicap is a physical or attitudinal constraint that is imposed upon a person, regardless of whether that person has a disability. Webster's defines handicap as “to put at a disadvantage.”
Example of Correct Usage: Some people with disabilities use wheelchairs. Stairs, narrow doorways and curbs are handicaps imposed upon people who use wheelchairs.
Tips for reporting on people with disabilities**
Do not focus on disability unless it is crucial to a story. Focus instead on issues that affect the quality of life of those same individuals, such as accessible transportation, housing, affordable health care, employment opportunities, or discrimination.
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.
Do not use generic labels for disability groups such as “the retarded” or “the deaf.” Do not define individuals by their disability.
Put People First, not their disability.
Emphasize abilities, not limitations. Show people as active participants in society. After the first People First Language reference, it’s alright to use “disabled person” as a secondary reference.
Do not use euphemisms to describe a disability.
** University of Kansas, Publications, Research and Training Center on Independent Living
People-First Language Preferred Expressions:
|Child with a disability
||handicapped child or disabled
|Individual with cerebral palsy
||palsied, CP or spastic
|Person who has….
||Afflicted, suffers from, victim of
|Nonverbal (with speech)
||mute or dumb
|Child(ren) with autism
||slow or retarded
|Emotional disorder/mental illness
||crazy or insane
|Deaf or has a hearing impairment
||deaf and dumb
|Communicates with sign language
|Uses a wheelchair
||confined to a wheelchair
|Has a cognitive or intellectual disability
|He has epilepsy
|Adult with Down syndrome
||mongoloid, suffers from Down syndrome
|Has a learning disability
||is learning disabled
|Has a physical disability
||is physically disabled/crippled
|Non-disabled; with disabilities
||disease (unless it IS)
|Has mobility impairment
||lame or crippled
||invalid or paralytic
Thank you for your time and willingness to hear about creating true inclusion and diversity. We hope that you will help make a difference for family members, friends, neighbors and co-workers who live with disabilities by using People First Language and encourage others to do the same. Our goal is to change public perception and create more welcoming attitudes through the words we choose. By placing emphasis on the person first, we enhance our communities because everyone knows they count!
People First Language:
These words and expressions are currently preferred and reflect a positive attitude. Some language is “trendy” and meanings may vary depending on the context. The Ideal is to incorporate these words into our language in a way that first and foremost, expresses the dignity of the person.
Low vision; person with low vision
Disabled (secondary reference)
Person with cerebral palsy
Person with a disability
Person with developmental disabilities; developmentally disabled
Person with paraplegia
Wheelchair-user or uses a wheelchair
Not all people with disabilities agree on which language or terminology is preferred like any other large, yet identifiable group of people. Individuals will vary as to how they refer to themselves and how they would like you to refer to them.
Read People First Language Guidelines PDF