When talking about people with disabilities, it's best to use “people-first” language most of the time.

This means you should say the word “person" or "people” first. The disability should not be an adjective.


People-first language

  • This is generally preferred by most people because it acknowledges that they are people above all else and are not defined by their disability. See this description from EARN: People-First Language.

Identity-first language

  • But not everyone prefers people-first language. Some prefer "identity-first" language. This means the disability is an adjective and comes first. This sends the message that the disability is an integral part of the person's identity and is nothing to be ashamed of.
  • These days, many people on the autism spectrum tend to prefer identity-first language: "autistic person". This is also true of the Deaf community. Deaf with a capital D means that a person has little to no hearing and communicates by American Sign Language (ASL) or Black American Sign Language (BASL). With their own language and culture, this group feels that being Deaf is a big part of who they are. (This is not always true of people who are hard of hearing or deaf with a lower case d. These people have some hearing and don't necessarily use ASL or BASL.)

How do  you know?

  • Of course you ask each person what they prefer.
  • But if you have to generalize, use these basic defaults:
    • Person-first for most people with disabilities
    • Identity-first for autistic and Deaf people.
  • Also be aware that these trends may change over time, so keep talking to people and research the current preferences to stay up to date.

Other Guidelines

  • Always avoid language that is outdated, offensive or condescending like "cripple" or "retarded".  
  • Don't use language that casts people as victims or as being "heroic" or "brave" for doing things that people without disabilities do anyway.
  • Don't refer to their disability unless there is reason to do so.
  • Treat people with disabilities like any other employee as much as possible, except to honor their accommodations and help them when they ask.
  • Read more in this short piece from the ADA National Network: Guidelines for Writing About People With Disabilities


Note that PWD is sometimes used in the literature for Person With a Disability. We use this abbreviation here in this Guide to streamline the text, but you would not use this term in conversation.


Sources: EARN - The Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion; The ADA National Network