The Power of Person-First Language

By Emily McClure


Words have power.


And for people with intellectual disabilities, words are extremely important. The language society uses to speak about people with intellectual disabilities plays a large role in how they are viewed and treated by their communities. That has not always been kind.


In the past, people with intellectual disabilities have been referred to as “retarded,” “special needs” or “mentally handicapped.” These are outdated terms that disrespect the people to whom they refer and focus more on a person’s disability than their abilities.


A disability does not make a person. Any person’s disability is not all-encompassing. Many of us who do not have intellectual disabilities instead have physical ones just as nearsightedness, farsightedness or severe scoliosis. Because these disabilities have “easy” fixes like corrective lenses and surgeries, we don’t think of them as disabilities because they make up only a small part of who we are as people; they do not define us.

The same is for people with intellectual disabilities. A person who has Downs syndrome has the same hopes, dreams and desires that anyone else in his community has. Someone who has autism still goes to school and works and plays alongside her classmates and friends. Their disabilities might make them unique from their peers, but to them, a disability is just one more hurdle on the obstacle course of life, not a backpack full of rocks they must drag behind them.

Their needs are not special. They desire to love and be loved. They enjoy spending time with friends and family, working out, being crafty and exploring the world.

So, let’s use language that is respectful to the people who are more alike to us than they are different from us. Let’s use words that simply describe a person, rather than defining them only in terms of one aspect of their lives.

To call someone a “Downs syndrome boy” or an “autistic girl” would be the same as calling someone else “the acne girl” or “the psoriasis boy.” It would be to say that their personalities are completely determined by one aspect of their lives that others can visually observe.

Instead of saying that someone is their disability, say that they have their disability. And only say it if it is relevant to the conversation at hand. Instead of saying “Kevin is Downs,” try “Kevin has Downs syndrome.” Instead of saying “Kathy is autistic,” try “Kathy has autism.”

It may seem like a small change, but those few letters make all the difference to people who are not defined by their intellectual disabilities and appreciate when their neighbors in the community recognize that, too.

Words have power. So, let’s use our words to empower and show respect to people who have intellectual disabilities.