People First Language

What it is and why it matters

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” ~ Mark Twain

Journalists and reporters have a special role to play in the use of language. This is especially true when the connotations of words carry more weight than their actual meaning.

“People first language.” What does this mean for people who experience disabilities?

What does this mean for you as a reporter? It’s really no different from anything else you write: we’re just asking you to be thoughtful. Just as you wouldn’t say the “N” word when referring to people of African descent, we’re asking you not to say “the disabled” or “mentally retarded” or “special needs person” or similar phrases.

Think of it this way: How would you like it if people described you in terms of your medical condition: “He’s the psoriasis guy.” Or how about describing your grandmother as “the Alzheimer’s lady.” It’s not inaccurate; it’s just not polite.

“People first language” promotes the idea that people who experience disabilities are people first, and their disability, to the extent it is relevant, should come second. For example, a “person who experiences autism” or a “person with autism,” instead of an “autistic.”

Words affect the way people think. They can reinforce outdated stereotypes or encourage respect through accurate, non-judgmental descriptions. As members of the fourth estate, you can make a difference.

For examples and a more thorough discussion of people first language, please read: