Language is Important


Recognizing the Person First, Then the Disability or Difference

When someone seems different from you, it’s pretty easy to focus on what sets them apart. Maybe it’s how they look or speak.

But think about it:

  • Do differences define the person?
  • Suppose you were the only one who failed a math test.
  • Would you want to be called “the math failure”?
  • Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say you were “the person who failed the math test yesterday”?
  • Your grade isn’t who you are; it’s one small thing about you.

Every person is made up of many characteristics and abilities—but few people want to be identified only by those things. That’s true whether it’s their grade on a math test, their ability to play tennis, or their love for fried onions.

Everyone is a person first.
It’s like that with disabilities, too.

Here are some cool ways to “put the person first” when talking about people with disabilities.

1. Speak of the person first, then the disability.

Say this Instead of this
person with a disability disabled or handicapped person
people with disabilities the disabled
person with cognitive delays mentally retarded person or retard
person who is deaf or hard of hearing deaf person
person with Down syndrome (not “Down’s”) “Retard”
person with a physical disability crippled person


2. Emphasize abilities, not limitations.
Focus on what someone can do, not what they cannot do.

3. Don’t give excessive praise or attention to a person with a disability.
Over-focusing on someone can be patronizing.

4. Remember that choice and independence are important.
Let the person do or speak for him or herself as much as possible.

5. Know the difference between a disability and a handicap.
A disability is a functional limitation that interferes with a person’s ability to walk, hear, talk, learn, etc. A handicap is a situation or barrier imposed by society, the environment, or oneself.

The next time you see a person in a wheelchair unable to go up the stairs in a building, what will you see first? The wheelchair? The physical problem? The person?

Will you say, “There is a handicapped person unable to find a ramp?” Or will you say “There is a person with a disability who is handicapped by an inaccessible building?”

So, if you do all that and “put the person first,” do you know what people will say?
“Now there goes a person who is way cool.”

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“That’s Retarded”

Have you ever heard something silly, unfamiliar, awkward, or misunderstood described as “retarded?”

A lot of people use this word, but many don’t really understand what it means. Did you know that “retarded” is simply derived from an old-fashioned medical term for people with intellectual disabilities? Yeah, it was mental retardation. It was just a word used to describe a medical condition like “asthma or pneumonia.”

But now, the word has morphed into something negative and offensive. It’s used to insult someone or something considered to be lesser in some way. And while the people who use it might not even know about its history, it’s still linked to people with disabilities. That means that when someone uses the word “retarded” as an insult, it is degrading to people with disabilities.

The way we speak helps us and the people around us shape their opinions. If you use “retarded” to refer to things you dislike or make fun of, you’re creating an environment that perpetuates negative stigmas about people with disabilities. You’d probably never directly call a person with a disability those things, but every time you use “retarded” as a synonym for something negative, you’re putting them down.

Now that you know more about the history of the word “retarded,” how will you react next time someone uses it around you?

It’s not easy to be the person who says something isn’t right. It takes courage to say something to your friends that may not be what they want to hear. But it’s important that people understand the power of words and their impact. You and your friends can lead this change. Stop using the “r-word” today.

Essay — The Short Bus Stops at My House


Suggested Audience: Middle and high school students

This essay, written by Laura, as an 18-year-old for her 17-year-old brother David, illustrates the powerful bond of siblings. It is illuminates the power and importance of language and how what we say and hear shapes our perceptions.

Laura writes:

It’s funny how the length of the bus you ride has the ability to define you as a person. Personally, I rode the regular sized bus, the one the “normal” students rode to school. However, there was another bus that happened to stop at my house every weekday morning. The… short bus, “the retard racer”, the bus that was transportation for my brother. Yes, my brother rode the short bus and will forever be the root of some kid’s immature joke. Or even worse the root of some adult’s joke. My brother is defined by his transportation of getting to school.

Read entire essay


After reading the essay, consider the following classroom discussion questions:

  • Why do people use condescending words about disabilities, such as “retarded”, to negatively reference a person or situation?
  • What can be done to educate that it’s not acceptable to use words that disparage people with disabilities?
  • Do you think that education about the impact bullying has on students with disabilities would change anything?
  • What would be helpful for parents and educators to know about how students with disabilities are treated at school and in the community

Special thank you to Laura Hertzog for sharing her essay.

“That’s So Gay”

Have you ever heard someone use the word “gay” to insult someone else? Sometimes it’s meant to comment on someone’s sexuality, but other times “gay” is used as another word for “stupid,” “uncool,” or “bad.” Some people think that it’s no big deal to use “gay” as an insult – that it’s just a word. But using the word this way can be extremely harmful.

Imagine that you were someone who identified as LGBTQ. How would you feel if you heard someone use “gay” as an insult? Your identity is being used to put down someone else. It’s like if you were from America, and you heard someone say, “What a stupid thing to do; that’s so American.” It would hurt a lot. It might make you hesitate to tell people that you’re American, because obviously if they use it as an insult, they don’t think it’s a positive trait. Using “gay” as an insult implies that being gay is a bad thing, something no one would want to be. Using someone’s identity to insult another can be really hurtful, and it certainly doesn’t create an accepting community.

What does this have to do with person-first language? It shows that person-first language doesn’t just apply to disabilities. It’s a way to think about other people, by always remembering that they aren’t defined by any one of their characteristics. A person isn’t defined by their race, sexuality, gender, ability, etc.; every person is a unique combination of characteristics. It’s important to remember that even if someone has opinions that differ from yours, they’re still a person – and they still deserve respect.