Terminology and People First Language

Interacting with People with Disabilities

October 1, 2012

National Center on Accessibility
National Center on Accessibility, Indiana University-Bloomington

Interacting with an individual who has a disability might be considered awkward and uncomfortable for some people. By being knowledgeable on the appropriate terms and methods of communication, interacting with individuals with disabilities can be pleasant and enjoyable for both parties.  For more examples for interacting with people with disabilities, read A Person First Approach to Recreation.

Terminology and Person-First Language are two things to keep in mind during such communications.


It is important to understand the differences between the terms impairmentdisability and handicap. You may hear these words used interchangeably, but each has a distinctly different meaning.

An impairment is an identifiable organic or functional condition that may be permanent or temporary. An impairment refers to hearing, visual, neurological, cognitive or mobility conditions that have less quality, strength or value than normal.

Disability is a limitation of function that occurs as a result of an impairment that leads to limitations in one or more life areas.

Handicap is physical or psychological damage as a result of interaction between the environment and a disability; a societal imposition. For a person with paralysis who uses a wheelchair, a handicap would be not being able to enter a building due to structural barriers such as lack of a ramped entrance.

Terminology is continually evolving. Staying current is important to effectively communicate on the subject of disability.

The example here helps to illustrate the difference between the three terms follows. Joe is a 25 yr old who has paraplegia.

Joe’s impairment is his inability to move his legs. No treatment may be currently available to lessen Joe’s impairment.

Joe’s inability to walk is a disability. His level of disability can be improved with special equipment. With the use of a wheelchair, Joe’s disability will be considerably reduced.

Joe’s paraplegia is a handicap to the extent that it prevents him from fulfilling a normal role at home, work and in the community. Due to his support system, Joe has been able to participate in recreational activities. Appropriate services and equipment can reduce the extent to which paraplegia prevents Joe from fulfilling a normal role in his home, work and community life.

People First Language

When reporting, writing or referring to people with disabilities, always put the person first. This places focus on the individual, not on a disability. Only mention a person’s disability if it is relevant. Don’t be intimidated by terminology; simple terms are fine. However, simple does not mean childish. Treat adults like adults.  Avoid grouping all individuals with disabilities together. For example, “the blind” or “the disabled.” Also be careful not to use language like “we/they” that suggests segregation. Below are some suggestions of what is appropriate to use and what you should avoid.

UsePerson with a disabilityA person with a mobility impairmentA person who uses a wheelchairPerson who is deafPerson who has seizuresHe/She has a need for….Congenital disability or a disability
that has existed since birth
AvoidHandicappedCrippled, invalid, victim of,
stricken withWheelchair boundMute, deaf and dumbRetard, crazy, insaneHe/she has a problem with….Birth defect

Interacting with People with Disabilities

Interacting with people with disabilities and treating one another with respect is an important part of relationship building. Consider the following tips for interacting with people with disabilities.

When communicating with people with disabilities, speak directly to the person, not their guardian, care-giver or companion they happen to be with.

If you are unable to understand what the individual with a disability is saying, ask them to repeat it. Asking someone to repeat what they said is more respectful than pretending to understand.

Be sure to ask the person before offering assistance. For example, don’t immediately grab the hand of an individual with a vision impairment to lead them down a hiking trail. Ask them what assistance they would prefer, if any. Don’t assume that all individuals with a disability are dependent upon others.

Be comfortable in your interactions; individuals with disabilities are people too.

When participating in recreational activities or games, adaptations should be made only when necessary and on an individual basis. These are not permanent changes, rather temporary solutions to make the activity available to all participants.

Focus on abilities; offer assistance only after you have asked and it is requested. Do not insist if offer is declined.

Place the emphasis on the person, not the disability (person-first language).

Avoid patronizing or paternalistic attitudes. Life is a challenge for all of us.

Avoid the word “handicapped.” Use person with a disability instead.

Not all disabilities are obvious. Be aware and sensitive to the fact that you may be dealing with an individual with a disability and not realize it.

Above all, use common sense and courtesy. Treat people with a disability as you would want to be treated.


Guidelines for Reporting and Writing About People with Disabilities
Research and Training Center on Independent Living, University of Kansas

Disability is Natural

Communicating with and about People with Disabilities in the Workplace
US Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy

People First Language
Family to Family Network

Guidance on Tranformational Language
SAMHSA Resource Center