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Words Make a Difference

In the United States, 1 in 4 adults (26 percent) have a disability and it’s estimated that 1 in 6 children (17 percent) have a developmental delay. This community of individuals is one of the largest minority groups in the United States and it’s important to ensure that the language we use is respectful. 

Because the group of individuals associated with this community is diverse, their preferences for the language used to describe them vary. There are two generally accepted ways to address individuals within this community:  person-first and identity-first.

Person First: Person-first language places the emphasis on the individual first, rather than on the disability. For example, the phrase ‘person with a disability’ rather than ‘disabled person’ is person-first language.  

Identity First: Many individuals, advocates, and disability activists prefer identity-first language.  Identity-first language promotes use of phrases like ‘disabled person’ where disability identity comes first. 

Whether using person-first or identity-first language, avoid words that suggest the individual is a victim of or suffers from a disability. This type of negative language tends to emphasize one aspect – the disability – of a person’s life and trivializes important qualities possessed by the individual.  In some instances, people celebrate their disability and see it as a uniquely positive aspect of their individuality.

People with a disabilities have unique perspectives about how they identify themselves in relation to their disability and their preferences for the language used to describe them. When in doubt….ask! Using language that is respectful demonstrates a commitment to everyone in our homes, schools, workplaces, and communities. 

If you’re interested in learning more, contact your Exceptional Family Member Program office.

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