People first language does exactly what it sounds like: it puts people first and doesn’t allow people to be defined by labels. But while that might sound simple, it’s not always easy to adapt your language and the way you talk about others.

Jennifer Hoesing is the Director of Development at DakotAbilities. She joined us today as we continue the conversation on developmental disability inclusivity to help us understand people first language – and why it matters.

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Individualize and personalize. The goal is to highlight ABILITY, not disability.

Say this:

Not this:

Person with a disabilityDisabled person, handicapped
Person with cognitive disabilityThe “R word”, slow
Person with epilepsyEpileptic
Person who uses a wheelchairWheelchair-bound
Person with quadriplegiaQuadriplegic
EXAMPLES OF PEOPLE-FIRST LANGUAGE


Think of assistive tools and technologies as an extension of the person.

It’s like a part of the person’s body. Think about what those tools make possible! Jennifer shared the example of Andrea, who uses a wheelchair. By putting Andrea first and we are not defining Andrea by her differences. In fact, Andrea’s wheelchair makes so much possible in her life. Andrea told Jennifer that her wheelchair is her home; it makes it possible to go where she needs and wants to go; and helps make her as comfortable as she wants to be with its supercool tilting abilities. Plus it’s purple and she gets to show off her personality with that color choice!

Don’t portray people with disabilities as superhuman, superheroes or super inspirational or “special”.

Jennifer explained that this inherently encourages sympathy – and we don’t want to increase sympathy, we want to increase inclusion. We want to recognize each person’s ability and not their deficits. Who wants to be defined by language that shows how they fall short? We want to recognize and build up strengths.

Don’t sensationalize or dramatize.

Jennifer used the example of Down syndrome. We see people with Down syndrome as homecoming queens and great customer service employees in some situations. Rethink language like “Jackie suffers from Down syndrome.” Sure, Jackie lives with Down syndrome, but remember to emphasize ability and recognize that people are living great lives despite our differences. People-first language empowers all of us!

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