Putting People First In Talking To Persons With Disabilities

. August 31, 2019.
Putting people first in talking to persons with disabilities

Disability is part of daily life for many families in the United States, but their lives are more than the disabilities of them or their loved ones. People First Language offers one way to communicate that message.

Alex Gossage, interim director of the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living (AACIL), said People First Language is about emphasizing the person rather than their disability.

“A person is more than their disability,” he said. “It is only a part of who they are.”

Gossage has been at the AACIL for the last 14 years, an organization with a mission to not only empower those with disabilities but also to educate and advocate for inclusiveness.

Choosing words carefully

Part of that advocacy, he explains, is teaching adults and children to be mindful about how they talk to and about people with disabilities, reinforcing positive terms and discouraging other disparaging language. Instead of saying “disabled person,” People First Language emphasizes “person with a disability.” Words like crippled, deformed, suffers from, and victim of are never acceptable.



The center provides disability training for businesses and organizations and creates opportunities to open the lines of communication about disability with children. Within the Ann Arbor Public Schools, every year the center provides an activity-based wheelchair exercise to teach children about the challenges of living with a disability. The exercise helps give students an empathetic understanding of disability and a more positive view of someone living with disability.

Identity First

While People First Language is a suggested set of guidelines, Gossage said, currently there is also discussion about “Identity First Language.” Some people prefer their disability be listed first in describing them, seeing it as part of their identity and something to take pride in.

People should take their cue from the person with the disability, he said, and find out what they want as individuals. Simple guidelines include addressing them by name, looking at them when speaking and speaking directly to them.

Media Portrayal

Kathy Homan, president of the Washtenaw Association for Community Advocacy, says in talking to and about people with disabilities, it is important to remember “You are always a person first.”

“You should always be respectful. Ask people how they would like to be addressed and don’t lead a conversation with the disability.” Homan said it is important for those in the media to use People First Language so that people with disabilities are portrayed in an honest, respectful way.

For more information about disability services and advocacy
in the 
Ann Arbor area, go to annarborcil.org.