Person First Language

Adapted from, current publication style manuals, and other sources.

    Imagine referring to your next door neighbor as "the cancerous woman."

    Not only does it sound odd, it is very degrading to your neighbor, who happens to have cancer.  It is very likely that this poor woman would rather be known as the excellent painter that she is, rather than her medical label.  This is not to say that she is ashamed that she has cancer; rather, she does not want to be defined by a few malfunctioning cells in her lymbic system.

    By and large, terms such as "handicapped" have passed out of usage, at least when applied to people.  Parking stalls and restrooms, apparently, are still able to have disabilities.  Other even more degrading words ("crippled," "retarded," etc.) have also passed out of common language, though the second is still used as a diagnostic description.

    Your neighbor, who has cancer, would probably prefer that you treat cancer as a condition that she has, rather than something that defines who she is.

    So why is it that we say "my autistic child," or "that Downs kid"?

    Why is it that we still say "oh, he's ADHD" or even the benign-sounding "my special needs child and her sister"?

    Current best practices in special education are child-centered, as we focus on each child's needs, and the supports and services they require from us to be successful.  One aspect of this respectful view of the children we serve is to use Person First Language.

    This description was taken from's description of Person First Language.

Disability is not the “problem.”

                    We need to rid our vocabulary of the word “problem” when talking about people’s
                    needs! A person with glasses doesn’t say, “I have a problem seeing.” She says, “I
                    wear (or need) glasses.” Recognize that what we call a “problem” is actually a need.

The real problems are attitudinal and environmental barriers.

                    If educators—and our society at large—perceived children with disabilities as
                    individuals who have the potential to learn, who have the need for the same education
                    as their brothers and sisters, and who have a future in the adult world of work, we
                    wouldn’t have to fight for inclusive education.

                    If employers—and our society at large—believed adults with disabilities have valuable job skills and can
                    contribute to the success of a business, we wouldn’t have to fight for real jobs for real pay in the real

                    If business owners—and our society at large—viewed people with disabilities as consumers with money
                    to spend, we wouldn’t have to fight for accessible entrances and other accommodations.

Some general rules that work in most situations:

For more information on Person First Language, please check out: