Challenging Words and Labels: How Should We Refer to Disability?

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By Dana S. Dunn, PhD (Professor of Psychology and Assistant Dean for Special Projects, Moravian College)

How should we talk about disability, especially perhaps, people with disabilities? Is saying “the disabled” or “disabled people” ok? Are there right and wrong ways to talk or write about disability?

The American Psychological Association (APA) advocates that when referring to disability, it’s best to put the person first. That is, instead of saying “disabled person,” choose “person with a disability.” The reasoning for the use of person-first language is this: Constructions like “disabled person” or “amputee” emphasize a condition over the person who is affected by it. Saying “person with a disability” or “individual with an amputation” focuses attention on the person and not the condition.

Similar to many of APA’s language recommendations (found in its Publication Manual), the goal is to avoid using deleterious or pejorative labels that can marginalize, isolate, or unduly glorify (see my previous post on why people with disabilities aren’t heroes) people. Doing so usually ends up over-emphasizing one aspect—disability—of a person’s life. When that happens, it hampers equality and can trivialize a person’s other qualities.

Some disability studies scholars, disability culture advocates and activists, and people with disabilities themselves adopt an opposing view. They adopt identity-first language, where “disabled person” or “amputee” or “diabetic” as well as various other labels or label-first terms are encouraged. Why? They argue that using these more candid, less euphemistic words and phrases is a way for individuals and groups to “claim” their disabilities, thereby expressing both pride and camaraderie.

By claiming disability generally or a particular disability, a disabled person is choosing an identity instead of allowing others—including often well-intentioned family, friends, medical or rehabilitation professionals, educators, employers, and even perfect strangers—to do it for them.

Adopting an identity-first stance is also a way for people with disabilities to exercise autonomy. One colleague who has autism, for example, noted that he is “not a person with autism” but instead someone who is an “autistic person” or even just “autistic.” As he put it, “I am absolutely not a ‘person with autism’. It’s [his autism] not detachable.”

In fact, those who favor the identity-first approach over the person-first approach do so because the latter can sometimes subtly imply that there is something negative about disability, just as add-on phrases like “with a disability” more or less dissociate the disability from the individual who has it. A disability is a fact and nothing to be ashamed of, so why not celebrate it?

Some communities within the larger disability community have already expressed their preferences for what they like and expect to be called. Members of Deaf culture, for example, intentionally capitalize their label to promote both unity and a sense of community. And for over 20 years, the National Federation for the Blind has eschewed person-first language in favor of identity-first words and phrases, embracing “blind person” over “person who is blind” or “individual with blindness.”

What should non-disabled people do? Should they choose identity-first over person-first language, or should they use both interchangeably? This can be a challenge because no one wants to hurt or offend another person.

In the first place, both approaches to language have the benefit of conferring respect on the disabled, so both work. Thus, using both interchangeably is certainly acceptable.

In the second place, the wisest choice, of course, and one that both the APA and various disability communities agree upon, is to call people what they prefer to be called. This choice can be a challenge, as one person with dwarfism, for example, might like to be referred to as a “dwarf” while another might welcome “person with dwarfism.” So, when in doubt, it’s always best to ask.

For more on these and related issues, check out these publications:

American Psychological Association. (2010). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.). Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from:  

Dunn, D. S. (2015). The social psychology of disability. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.


Dana S. Dunn, a Professor of Psychology and Assistant Dean for Special Projects at Moravian College, is a member of the APA’s Committee on Disability Issues in Psychology (CDIP). He earned his B.A. in psychology from Carnegie Mellon University and received his Ph.D. in social psychology from the University of Virginia. Dunn is the author or editor of 19 books and over 150 journal articles, chapters, and book reviews. His scholarship examines teaching, learning, and liberal education, as well as the social psychology of disability. In 2013, Dunn received the American Psychological Foundation’s Charles L. Brewer Award for Distinguished Teaching of Psychology. He is currently editor-in-chief of the Oxford Bibliographies (OB): Psychology and a member of Board of the Foundation for Rehabilitation Psychology. Dr. Dunn also blogs regularly for Psychology Today’s “Head of the Class.”


  1. A person who has disabilities may not be totally disabled by them. Thus, disabilities should not define the person, but be perceived as difficulties a person possesses. This distinction is important because viewing disabilities as challenges, some of which can be managed or healed, presents optimistic possibilities, both for the person who has them and for professional and family/friends who are caregivers so they continue to try.

    My husband is physically very disabled by a stroke caused by a bleed related to medication that left him permanently paralyzed on his dominant side and must live in a nursing home, yet he is able to manage some of his needs by working hard and using his unimpaired cognitive functioning cleverly and flexibly. For instance, using his non-paralyzed arm to hold a grab stick enables him to select what he wants to wear from his closet. He can feed himself but needs food cut for him so he decided to order fish every day as a way around not having someone to cut his food (I realize the monotony and lack of food balance so am trying to find other solutions.) He works very hard at coping, including accurately resetting his watch for seasonal time changes….with one hand! He said it wasn’t easy and took hours, but was proud he could accomplish it.

    I am writing a book with him about strokes with advice for caregivers. It is a book that encourages optimism and respect and referring to disabilities as possessions not definitions of a person.


  2. “One colleague who has autism, for example, noted that he is ‘not a person with autism’ but instead someone who is an ‘autistic person’ or even just ‘autistic’.”
    In which case, shouldn’t you refer to this gentleman as ‘An autistic colleague’? Person-Centered Language trumps all!


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