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Now, How Do You Say That?.....

People First Language, Etiquette and Not offending Folks - By Sherry Bushnell

It’s not that I am a stickler for saying things just right, or that I get offended when someone uses the word “handicapped.” My problem is knowing what to say to the folks who ask me the “right way” to say something. So, thanks to a practical pamphlet shared by Debbie Mills, CA, printed by Community Interface Services, I have in my hand the “right way” to say it!

     If given my druthers, I’d just as soon stick with my regular way of saying things. But those of you who are curious, here is how “they” prefer we say it.

     Here is a poem that condenses the whole idea of “person first” mentality.

“I Am A Person First...and I Have a Disability.”

When you deal with me, treat me just as you would any other person...with respect and courtesy.

Please look me in the eye, and speak directly to me, not to my companion.

I am used to coping with my disability, but I appreciate your help when I need it.

If I have trouble seeing or hearing or moving easily, please remember that it is my eyes or ears or muscles that do not work as well as yours…

Beyond that I have the same needs and wants, hopes and desires as you do.

I have problems and fears, just like you but I also have strengths that sometimes even I don’t recognize.

I need to talk to you about those abilities and I need you to listen.

But most of all, I need you to remember that I am a person first.

    People with disabilities prefer to be called “people with disabilities”. This way, you acknowledge that they are, indeed people first.

     If you saw a person in a wheelchair unable to negotiate the stairs of a building, would you say: “There is a handicapped person unable to find a ramp”? Or would you say “There is a person using a wheelchair, who is handicapped by an inaccessible building?”

  • Emphasize abilities, not limitations “He uses a wheelchair.” “She walks with crutches”.

  • Don’t label people as part of a disability group—say “people with disabilities” not “the disabled”.

  •  Don’t patronize or give excessive praise or attention.

  • Don’t say, “Isn’t it wonderful how he has overcome his disability?” People live with a disability—they have to overcome attitudinal, social, architectural, education, transportation and employment barriers– not the disability.

  • Be aware that choice and independence are important. Ask a person with a disability if they want assistance before you help. Your help may not be wanted or needed.

  • Treat adults with disabilities as adults. Call the person by his or her first name only when extending that familiarity to all others present.

  • Make eye contact and speak directly to the person, not a companion or interpreter. Do not shorten a first name; say “Bill” not “Billy”.

  • Be aware of the distinction between “disability” and “handicap”. 

 A disability is a functional limitation that interferes with a person’s ability to walk, hear, talk, learn, etc. A handicap is a physical or attitudinal constraint that is imposed upon a person. Use handicap to describe a situation or barrier imposed by society, the environment or oneself. Be considerate of the extra time it might take for a person to get things said or done.


People who have speech difficulties.

  •  Give whole, unhurried attention to the person. And keep your manner encouraging, rather than correcting.

  • Rather than speak for the person, allow extra time and give help when needed.

  • When necessary, ask questions that require short answers or a nod or shake of the head.

  • Don’t pretend to understand when you don’t. Repeat when you do understand; the person’s reactions will guide you and clue you in.

  • Look for communication aids like pictures or symbols.

People who are hearing impaired

  •   If necessary, get the person’s attention with a wave of the hand or light tap on the shoulder.

  • Speak clearly and slowly but without exaggerating. DON’T SHOUT! Use body language or facial expression to help.

  • Try to maintain eye contact. Allow for a clear view of your face—the person may be lip reading. Don’t speak directly into the ear.

  • Don’t be embarrassed about communication via paper and pencil.

People who use wheelchairs

  •    Always ask the wheelchair user if he or she would like assistance before you help.

  • Don’t lean on a person’s wheelchair. It is part of their personal body space.

  • If the conversation lasts more than a few minutes sit or kneel to get face to face.

  • Give clear directions including physical obstacles and alternative routes.

  • Don’t discourage children from asking questions about the wheelchair.

People who are visually impaired

  • Always identify yourself and any others who may be with you. For example, say, “On my right is…”

  • Use the person’s name when starting a conversation as a clue to whom you are talking. Let the person know when you need to leave.

  • When offering a handshake, say “Shall we shake hands?” If the person extends a hand first, take it or explain why you can’t.

  • Ask the person if he or she wants help in getting about. When providing assistance, don’t grab and start steering—allow the person to take your arm, bent at the elbow.

  • When offering seating, place the person’s hand on the back or arm of the seat. In handling money or other papers, identify each piece as you place it in the person’s hand.

   Compassion, in the form of help, may not be help at all if we are not thinking about the real needs of the person with a disability. For instance, someone who is struggling to get a word out, having difficulty due to stuttering, may not appreciate having things said for them.

So, here is what to say...


Person who has, Person with… Person who is affected, Instead of… afflicted, suffers from, victim or stricken.


Person with…

          a disability

          cerebral palsy



          Down syndrome

    Instead of...disabled / handicapped, palsied, C.P., spastic, retarded, epileptic, mongoloid.

Say… of short stature Instead of...dwarf or midget.

Say… without speech, non-verbal Instead of...mute of dumb.

Say… deaf or hearing impaired Instead of hard of hearing.

Say… visually impaired Instead of sightless.

Say… developmental delay Instead of slow.

Say… emotional disorder or mental illness Instead of crazy or insane.

Say… learning disability Instead of learning disabled.

Say… non-disabled Instead of normal, healthy.

Say… mobility impaired Instead of lame.

Say… cleft lip Instead of hare lip.

Say… seizures Instead of fits.

Say… congenital disability Instead of birth defect.

Say… condition Instead of disease (unless it is a disease).

Say… medically involved, Instead of sickly.

Say… uses a wheelchair Instead of confined to a wheelchair bound.

Say… Physical disability Instead of crippled or lame.