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To achieve Inclusion, Community, and Freedom for people with disabilities,
we must use


A commentary by Kathie Snow

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.
Mark Twain

Who are the so-called handicapped?
Society's myths tell us they are:

  • people who “suffer” from the “tragedy of birth defects”

  • “paraplegic heroes” who “struggle” to become “normal” again

  • “victims” who “fight” to “overcome” their conditions

  • categorically: the so-called disabled, retarded, autistic, blind, deaf, learning disabled, and more

Who are they, really?
They are moms and dads and sons and daughters . . . employees and employers . . . scientists (Stephen Hawking) . . . friends and neighbors . . . movie stars (Marlee Matlin) . . . leaders and followers . . . students and teachers . . . they are people.
They are people, first.

The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names.
Old Chinese Proverb

  • Are you myopic or do you wear glasses?

  • Are you cancerous or do you have cancer?

  • Are you freckled or do you have freckles?

  • Are you handicapped/disabled or do you have a disability?

People First Language describes what a person HAS, not what a person IS!

People First Language puts the person before the disability!

The Disability Rights Movement is following in the footsteps of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the Women’s Movement of the 1970s. While people with disabilities and advocates work to end discrimination and segregation in education, employment, and our communities at large, we must all work to eliminate the prejudicial language that creates an invisible barrier to inclusion in the mainstream of life.

“Disability is a natural part of the human experience...”
U.S. Developmental Disabilities Act & The Bill of Rights Act, 1993

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 community.

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.

In our society, “handicapped” and “disabled” are all-encompassing terms that are misused.
  • People with hearing or vision impairments don’t need “handicapped” parking or restrooms. Many people with physical disabilities do need accessible parking and restrooms.

  • If a “handicapped” entrance has a ramp for people who use wheelchairs, does the doorway have Braille signage for people with visual impairments?

  • Accommodations that enable people with disabilities to access a facility—regardless of their disabilities—are accessible!

  • “Disabled” is not accurate, either. Our society “corrupts” language. When a traffic reporter describes a traffic jam, we often hear, “There’s a disabled vehicle on the highway.” “Disabled,” in that context, means “broken down.” People with disabilities are not broken!

  • If a new toaster doesn’t work, we say, “It’s defective!” and we return it and get a new one! Do we return babies who have birth “defects”? The respectful term is “congenital disability.”

It’s time we understand the power of language.

When we misuse words, we reinforce the barriers created by negative and stereotypical attitudes. When we refer to people with disabilities by medical diagnoses, we devalue and disrespect them as members of the human race. Disability labels are simply sociopolitical terms that provide a passport to services. For too long, labels have been used to define the value and potential of people who are labeled.

People will live up (or down) to our expectations. If we expect people with disabilities to succeed, we cannot let labels stand in their way. We must not let labels destroy the hopes and dreams of people with disabilities and their families.

Disability can be defined as a body function
that operates differently.

Contrast that meaning with: the origin of “handicap,” from the dictionary, which refers to “hand in cap,” a game where the losing player was considered to be at a disadvantage; and a legendary origin of the word which refers to a person with a disability having to beg on the street with “cap in hand.”

“Handicapped,” “Disabled,” or People with Disabilities:
which description is most accurate?

Using “handicapped,” and even “disabled,” typically evokes negative feelings (sadness, pity, fear, and more) and creates a stereotypical perception that people with disabilities are all alike. All people who have brown hair are not alike. All people who have disabilities are not alike. In fact, people with disabilities are more like people without disabilities than different!

The disability community is the largest minority group in our nation, and it’s all inclusive! It includes people of both genders and of all ages, as well as individuals from all religions, ethnic backgrounds, and socioeconomic levels. About the only things people with disabilities have in common with one another are 1) having a body part that is different and 2) facing prejudice and discrimination. Unique to the disability community is that it’s the only minority group that anyone can join in the split second of an accident.

If and when it happens to you,
will you have more in common with others with disabilities
or with your family, friends, and coworkers?

Many people who do not now have a disability will have one in the future. Others will have a family member or friend who acquires a disability. If you acquire a disability in your lifetime, how will you want to be described? How will you want to be treated? Disability issues are issues that affect everyone!

Using People First Language is a crucial issue.

If people with disabilities are to be included in all aspects of our communities—in the ordinary, wonderful, and typical activities most people take for granted—they must talk about themselves in the ordinary, wonderful, typical language others use about themselves.

Children with disabilities are children, first. The only labels they need are their names! Parents must not talk about their children in the clinical terms used by medical practitioners. A parent of a child who wears glasses (medical diagnosis: myopia) doesn’t say, “My daughter is myopic,” so why does the parent of a child who has a medical diagnosis of autism say, “My daughter is autistic.”?

Adults with disabilities are adults, first. The only labels they need are their names! They must not talk about themselves the way service providers talk about them. An adult with a medical diagnosis of cancer doesn’t say, “I’m cancerous,” so why does an adult with a diagnosis of cerebral palsy say, “I’m disabled.”?

What’s the only purpose of a disability label?
To get services!

A disability label is simply a medical diagnosis and a
sociopolitical passport for entry into the service system.
Disability labels cannot be used to define human beings!

My son, Benjamin, is 14 years old. He loves Star Wars, pretzels, and playing on the computer; he collects Pez candy dispensers. He has blond hair, blue eyes, and cerebral palsy. His disability is only one characteristic of his whole persona. He is not his diagnosis, and his potential cannot be defined by his disability label. In fact, among friends and family, and in typical settings, a person’s disability should be irrelevant! Disability labels should only be used within the service system; they have no place in the real world!

When I introduce myself to people, I don’t tell them I’ll never be a prima ballerina. Like others, I focus on my strengths, not on what I can’t do. Don’t you do the same? I don’t say, “My son can’t write with a pencil.” I say, “My son uses a computer to write.” I don’t say, “My son can’t walk.” I say, “My son uses a wheelchair.” How can you change the language you use about yourself or others with disabilities?

A person’s self-image is strongly tied to the words used to describe the person. For generations, people with disabilities have been described in negative, stereotypical language that has created mythical portrayals about them. Over time, these myths have taken on the power of truths, when they’re actually lies. We must all believe people with disabilities are real people with unlimited potential, just like all people. We must stop believing the myths—the lies—of labels.

We have the power to create new truths about people with disabilities. Using People First Language can influence society’s views and treatment of people with disabilities.

Isn’t it time for us to make this change?
If not now, when? If not you, who?

Benjamin goes ballistic when he hears “handicapped.” I hope when he’s grown, labels will be extinct. People First Language is right. Just do it—NOW!

Examples of People First Language

Say Instead of
people with disabilities the handicapped or disabled
he has a cognitive disability he’s mentally retarded
she has autism she’s autistic
he has Down syndrome he’s Downs
she has a learning disability she’s learning disabled
he has a physical disability he’s a quadriplegic/crippled
she’s of short stature she’s a dwarf (or midget)
he has an emotional disability he’s emotionally disturbed
she uses a wheelchair or mobility chair she’s wheelchair bound
she’s confined to a wheelchair
he receives special ed services he’s in special ed
typical kids
kids without disabilities
normal or healthy kids
congenital disability birth defect
brain injury brain damaged
accessible parking handicapped parking
she needs . . . or she uses . . . she has a problem with . . .

And no more “special needs”! A person’s needs aren’t special to him—they’re normal and ordinary! Keep thinking—there are many descriptors we need to change. Practice new ways of thinking!


Our words reflect the way we think, so let's get rid of descriptors like "mentally handicapped, physically disabled, mentally retarded, learning disabled" and other words that focus on the condition instead of the person. People First Language promotes dignity and respect for all!

Copyright © 2001
Disability is Natural
BraveHeart Press
Reprinted from the Disability Is Natural Website.

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