Language Use

Flowers on UNH campus

Interacting with people with disabilities and talking about disability does not have to be complicated. As with all interactions, starting from a point of respect, understanding, and compassion is a solid foundation for all interactions whether or not the person has a disability. However, it should also be recognized that there is a long history of stigmatization of disability and ableism, and this has led to misunderstandings around language use and overall disability etiquette.   

The way that we talk about disability and people with disabilities matters. There is a long history of pejorative language use related to disability. This ranges from benign mischaracterizations to outwardly discriminatory language. While it will not be helpful to repeat these specific terms, it is helpful to think about some broader guidelines around how to talk about disability.  

Be aware of the broader meaning and potential negative connotation of the words you choose  

The meaning of certain words can evolve over time. There are a number of words that are used casually that have broader more negative connotations as related to disability. For example, words like “psycho” or “crazy” are used to define someone acting unpredictably or in a manner that seems inappropriate. Intentional or not, even though these terms are not used to describe people experiencing mental illness, these terms still have a pejorative and stigmatizing context. Labeling a behavior as unacceptable by using disability related words only further stigmatizes the disability and associates having a mental health concern with unacceptability. It is important to think critically about the connotation and meaning of the words that we use.  

Actively address negative language use  

If there are inappropriate words used, it is important to address this usage. This does not have to be a direct confrontation in the moment (though it could be depending on the word used and the context), but it could also be following up with someone. Most importantly, stigmatizing language use should not go unchecked.  

Avoid phrases that dehumanize  

Sometimes even well-intentioned phrases can dehumanize people with disabilities. There are many examples of these types of phrases:  

  • You are so brave/inspiring  
  • I didn’t think people like you could… 
  • You don’t look/act disabled 
  • I never would have guessed you had a disability 
  • I have a friend who has… 

While the goal of these types of phrases is to recognize an achievement or acknowledge an individual, all of the phrases effectively dehumanize because each begins with an implied assumption of incapability. All people with disabilities have more strengths than they do weaknesses, and it is important to take a strengths-based, person-centered approach.  

Start with person-first language, but be open to identity-first language preferences  

When talking about people with disabilities, there are two primary approaches:  

  • Person-first language – Person-first language recognizes the person prior to acknowledging the person’s disability. The intention of person-first language is to acknowledge the whole person, and to also acknowledge that disability may only be one aspect of the individual’s identity. For example, “a person with autism.”  

  • Identity-first language – Identity-first language puts the disability identity front and center. The intention of identity-first language is to fully embrace the disability identity and acknowledge the importance of such an identity to the person who has it. For example, “an autistic person.”  

There is no consensus around which approach is better. Advocates within the disability community argue for both approaches. A good place to begin is by using person-first language, but being open to identify-first language preferences. For example, when referencing some with a disability, you should say person with a disability rather than disabled person.

However, it is important to be open to identity-first language preferences. For example, someone  may prefer to be referred to as autistic rather than as a person with autism. It is important to be open to whatever preference a person has, but person-first language is often a good starting point.