Disability Culture

People First Language

How we talk about people matters. A child with a disability is first or foremost a child. When talking about children or adults with disabilities, put the person first, and only refer to the disability if it is relevant.

As examples, say: "child with a disability" rather than "the disabled" or "the handicapped," "child who has cerebral palsy" rather than "the cp kid."

Say "child who uses a wheelchair" instead of "wheelchair bound" or "confined to a wheelchair."

Avoid using phrases that:

  • separate children with disabilities from children without disabilities, or that imply an "us" vs. "them" dynamic
  • are pitying or sentimental
  • are insensitive or disrespectful

Examples of outdated phrases to avoid include: special, special needs, retarded, crippled, gimp, afflicted, suffers from, mentally retarded, differently abled, physically challenged, birth defect, crazy, insane, slow.

Resources on People First Language

Exceptions to People First Language

woman holding a boy who is smiling with a blurry backgroundSome people in the Deaf and disability communities choose not to use person first language.

Many Deaf people do not identify as having a disability, and use the word "Deaf" first—with a capital D—to describe themselves. Being Deaf is part of their culture, their community, and is an essential part of their identity.

Some people with disabilities—particularly in the autism spectrum disorder community—prefer “identity first” language, which also allows people to claim their disability as part of who they are. Instead of saying, I’m a person who has autism,” they might say, “I’m autistic.”

And, as with other minority cultures, sometimes people with disabilities have co-opted outmoded phrases for their own, such as sports teams that call themselves the “Crips.”

When in doubt, ask people with disabilities what they prefer.

Family Culture and Disability

In some cultures, families feel great shame about having a child with a disability. During an abuse investigation, families from those cultures may seem guilty. They may hide away their child with a disability and even keep their child out of school.

Conversely, people in other cultures may believe so strongly in taking care of “their own” that they may have difficulty with the concept of supporting children and youth with disabilities to live as independently as possible. The social push toward independence may not work for families of those cultures.

(Adapted in part from Shelton, et al., p. 5 and D. Velasco, personal communication.)