What Employers Should Know About Disabilities and Person-First Language

By Diana Sadighi posted 04-13-2023 02:41 PM


Words have power. Language and the meanings we attach to words can influence the way we interact with others in the workplace and society at-large. Word choice can reflect unconscious bias, the underlying attitudes and stereotypes people unconsciously attribute to another person or group. Even when our intent is not harmful, the impact can be hurtful. That’s why it’s important to pay attention to the words and phrases we use and how they may make others feel included or excluded 

There are two approaches to communicating about disability: person-first language and identity-first language. Both are designed to convey respect, the feeling that someone is important and should be treated positively.  

Understanding the Two Approaches 

Person-first language, also known as people-first language, emphasizes the person and recognizes that their disability or identity is only one part of who they are. When we use person-first language, we recognize that individuals with disabilities are people first, with their unique personalities, interests, and abilities. The approach describes what the person “has” rather than what the person “is.” For example, “a person with a disability” or “a child with autism” acknowledges that the person is more than just their disability or identity. Labels like “the handicapped” or “the blind” suggest that disability is their defining characteristic. Such language reinforces negative stereotypes and can perpetuate discrimination. 

Person-first language can have practical benefits. For example, research has shown that using person-first language can lead to more positive attitudes toward individuals with disabilities and foster inclusion in workplaces. 

Another approach is identity-first language, where the disability or condition becomes the focus, such as “autistic person” or “deaf person. Historically, we used identity-first language because the disability or condition was considered an impairment and the primary description of the individual. For the grammar enthusiast, this approach placed the adjective first, then the noun it modifies, which may be another reason this approach has been more common. 

Today, some individuals embrace identity-first language as a symbol of pride and a key part of their identity. The approach is commonly accepted in the autistic, Deaf, and blind communities, where advocacy organizations state their disability as part of who they are. Identity-first language recognizes that the disability is not a derogatory term nor something that needs to be fixed. 

The following chart illustrates examples: 



Employee with a disability 

Disabled employee 

Person with autism 

Autistic person 

Student who is deaf 

Deaf student 

Patient living with AIDS 

AIDS patient 


Which One to Use? 

There is debate on which approach to use. What matters most is the individual’s personal preference. When in doubt, ask the person or group which they prefer. You may get different answers, even among people with the same disability. Remember, this is about respect for an individual. If you are unsure which approach to use, seek guidance from advocacy groups or some of the resources discussed below. 

In health care settings, person-first language has become the preferred approach, endorsed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the American Medical Association (AMA). Advocates say this can help promote better communication between health care providers and patients with disabilities. By using person-first language, providers can emphasize the person’s humanity and encourage a collaborative and respectful approach to care 

In the workplace, using person-first language can promote a more positive and inclusive culture. It can help reduce the stigma and discrimination that individuals with disabilities often face in employment. 

In communication, style guides are used by different industries to ensure consistency. The major guides take different approaches. The following recommend using person-first language: 

 While others encourage writers to confirm individual preferences: 

 Or when preferences can’t be identified, use a mix of person-first and identity-first language: 

No federal legislation exists on the use of person-first language, but Arizona, Colorado, New York, Pennsylvania, Oregon, and the District of Columbia have laws to establish person-first language for state agencies. Many local governments have proclamations encouraging the use of person-first language, while government agencies often have guidance on this approach, especially in education, health, and human services. 

More importantly, ask yourself if the disability is relevant and needs to be mentioned when referring to individuals. As we’ve learned, applying labels related to race, ethnicity, or age when describing workers, patients, and customers is usually unnecessary.  

Additional Tips 

Here are some other language tips when communicating about people with disabilities: 

  • Avoid negative words like victim, sufferer, afflicted, and defect. “Wheelchair user is more positive than confined to a wheelchair.” 

  • Don’t forget the person. “Person with a brain injury is preferred over brain damaged.” “A person who has epilepsy is preferred over epileptic.” 

  • Some phrases once considered acceptable are now viewed as condescending. For example, special needs, challenged, and impaired should be avoided.  

  • Stay away from slurs, even when used by someone with a particular disability. You may overhear someone self-identify using slang or outdated words, but don’t take that as permission to use the same term. Ask first. In addition to a person’s disability, this approach can be applied to one’s race or ethnic group.  

Are you confused yet? How should you refer to someone with a disability? Begin by seeing the person, not the label. Next, ask. About 25% of U.S. adults identify as having a disability, according to the CDC. It’s likely that a friend, coworker, or teacher in your world can help. Finally, consult one of the resources identified above. Better yet, avoid the label and just call a person by their name. 

Employers Council has many resources and services available to assist your organization. If you have questions or want more information, please email the Member Experience Team.