Watch Your Words Brochure

Watch Your Words
They Affect Others

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Words are the only things that last forever.

People with disabilities know all too well that words create opportunities or build barriers. Man or woman, adult or child, it’s something they’ve dealt with every day of their lives.

For too long, words have separated and isolated people with disabilities. They’ve heard them all – idiot, retard, handicapped, fragile, mentally weak, weird, deformed, moron, imbecile, cripple, mongoloid, spastic, feebleminded, brain damaged – and on and on and on.

Watch your thoughts for they become words. Choose your words for they become actions.

Time after time people with disabilities have been identified not as a person, but as a problem. They’ve heard terms like “afflicted with,” “crippled by,” “suffers from,” and “a victim of.” They’ve been pitied or praised because of their “battle” to overcome their “handicap.”

To paraphrase writer George Orwell, if thought corrupts language then language can corrupt thought. Put another way, the words we choose reflect our attitudes.

That’s why people with disabilities prefer “people first language.” What, exactly, is people first language? Simply put, people first language uses words in a way that identifies the person before their so-called problem.

People First Language

Following are examples of the dos and don’ts in the use of people first language.

Put the person first when writing or speaking about people with disabilities! Stay away from labels like the blind, the deaf or the disabled. They do not reflect the individuality, equality or dignity of people with disabilities. So, with all this in mind, when referring to a person with a disability …



Say or write this …

She is a person with a disability
He is an individual without a disability
They are children (kids) without disabilities
He is a person with a cognitive disability
She is an individual with autism
He needs behavior supports
She is a person with a learning disability
He uses a wheelchair
She has a physical disability
He has a brain injury
She has a congenital disability
He is a person with mental retardation
She is a person who is blind or visually impaired
He is a person who is deaf or hard of hearing
She is an individual with (or who has) multiple sclerosis or muscular dystrophy
He is a person with cerebral palsy
She is an individual with epilepsy
He is a person with a psychiatric disability
He is a person who uses an assistive speech device or is unable to speak

Instead of this …

She is handicapped or disabled
He is able-bodied
They are normal or healthy children (kids)
He’s retarded
She’s autistic
He has behavior problems
She’s learning disabled
He’s confined to a wheelchair
She’s a quadriplegic or a cripple
He’s brain damaged
She suffers from a birth defect
He’s a retard or mentally defective
The blind
He suffers a hearing loss or from being deaf
She is afflicted by MS or MD

He is a victim of CP
She is an epileptic
He is crazy, nuts, etc.

He is dumb or a mute


A Final Word

The formula is simple – put the person before the disability and you get a positive perception.

This, people with disabilities will tell you, is the first step toward full acceptance as contributing members of society. It is one of the ways they can let their fellow citizens know that they are not broken – that for them, having a disability is a natural, not a selected, way of life.

People first language also prevents the tendency to reduce the person to the disability. When words alone define a person, the result is a label … a label that almost always reinforces the barriers created by negative and stereotypical attitudes.

As a minority, people with disabilities know something most of us fail to recognize – what you see is not necessarily what you get. While people with disabilities and their advocates are working hard to end the very real discrimination and segregation in education, employment and participation in community activities, all of us must strive to eliminate the prejudicial language that creates barriers to inclusion in the mainstream of society.

We cannot always control our thoughts, but we can control our words.

Like paint on a canvas, words create a powerful image. The question is whether we want that image to be a straightforward, positive view of people with disabilities or an insensitive portrayal that reinforces common myths and is a form of discrimination.


2401 N. W. 23 St., Suite 74
Oklahoma City, OK 73107
Voice/TDD (405) 521-4984
Toll-free (800) 836-4470
Fax (405) 521-4910