People First Language: I Am Not My Wheelchair

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Consider the sentence:

"Christopher Reeve was a wheelchair-bound actor."

To those familiar with his career before he suffered the accident which lead to his paralysis, this would be a gross misrepresentation of a popular and beloved figure. Why then, is it acceptable to characterize others in similar ways - even if they have lived with a disability from birth?

People who live with disabilities face social challenges daily, and they may feel uncomfortable when ordinary people refer to them as “disabled people”. Some basic consideration of the language that we use to talk with and about people with disabilities can make a substantial difference in the atmosphere within a workplace, classroom, social situation, or even in casual encounters. The characterization of people with disabilities as people first and foremost can be the difference between recognition and dismissal of a person who has ability, interests, and ambition. For instance:

  • "Ray Charles was a blind musician" minimizes his accomplishments, and frames them as occurring in spite of his disability. "Ray Charles was a world-renowned musician who was blind" is a recognition of his individuality and talent, above the disability which he lived with.
  • "Helen Keller was deaf and blind" defines her solely in terms of her disability, and entirely ignores her career as a human rights activist and writer. "Helen Keller was the author of 12 books, and was the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree" identifies her as a person who was intelligent and motivated, regardless of her sensory disabilities.
  • "Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a disabled politician" seems an almost absurd description of a man who became one of the most respected Presidents of the United States. His accomplishments are so well known and regarded that they eclipse the fact that he spent much of his life in a wheelchair as a result of a battle with polio. Does this then suggest that there is a threshold beyond which a person with a disability must achieve to be afforded an identity beyond their physical, sensory, or cognitive impairment?

People first language is defined as a linguistic prescriptivism that seeks to eliminate dehumanization of people with disabilities. It helps those who don't live with a disability recognize people with disabilities as individuals with personalities and identities that are distinct from their disability. The most basic and effective use of the language is to identify people with disabilities by their names.

Because people first language is intended to increase the communicated level of respect in interaction between people who have disabilities and people who do not, it is recommended that it be a consideration in all such interaction. However, the extent of its use should be determined situationally. If including people first language in a single sentence is cumbersome, and causes a speaker to stumble over words, it may not be ideal or critical that the most explicit and clear people first language be used. Some feel that extreme adherence to people first language constitutes excessive political correctness, and takes the focus away from effective communication. In all cases, it is important to consider the context of the communication, and the wishes of the people involved. Likewise, if a party to a communication feels that any of the language used is inappropriate or not useful, they should make this known, for the sake of fostering an environment of mutual respect and positive interaction.

Many educational institutions that serve young children encourage people first language in order to establish an environment of respect and inclusion early in a child's social development - both for the sake of children who live with disabilities, and for those who do not.

Here are links to more information about people first language:

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