Person-First Language & Disability Etiquette

Person-First Language & Disability Etiquette

Anonymous contributor
Resource by Taylor Harrington and Clara King Adapted with permission from authors

One of the main ways we can welcome people of all abilities to church is through our attitudes, actions, and how we refer to people with disability. It's common for people to still use language that is out-of-date. I'm sure you can think of examples of disability-related terminology that we no longer use. But it's important to use appropriate language as a way of giving people with intellectual disabilities the respect and dignity they deserve.

Labels are for jars, not people!

Using ‘person-first’ language helps us to focus on the person, not their disability. While a person’s disability may be a part of their identity, it does not encompass the whole person.

Things to remember about disability-related language:

● Be strengths-focused. Rather than focusing on what a person may have difficulty doing, focus instead on their strengths and interests. 

● Use ‘person-first’ language. This means we focus on someone's personhood before their ability. For example, we talk about a 'person with disability,' rather than a 'disabled person.' or a 'person with autism,' rather than an 'autistic person'. 

● Avoid using derogatory or grouping terms such as ‘the disabled’ or ‘the handicapped'. For example, avoid saying 'suffering from dementia,' or 'are victims of...', instead say, 'a person with dementia' or a 'person living with dementia.'

Disability etiquette

It's normal to feel daunted when first interacting with people with ID. You might be concerned about offending them or doing something wrong. While these concerns are understandable, you will soon find out people with ID are like anyone else, they simply want to be included and respected. Follow these etiquette tips to respectfully interact with people with disability.

● Treating people age-appropriately, not like children, both in how we speak and act towards them. 

● Talking directly to the person, rather than to their family or friends, without the use of demeaning language/tone. 

● Not making assumptions about an individual’s level of ability. For example, just because a person uses an assistive device to communicate, it doesn’t mean that they do not understand what is being said, and vice versa. We should always get to know the specific strengths and support needs of an individual. 

● Always asking permission before moving a person in a wheelchair, or before taking a person's arm to relocate them, for example, in the case of someone with low vision. 

● And when speaking to a wheelchair user, try and take a seat with them so you can speak to them eye to eye rather than making a person look up to you. 

● Remember that people with ID are adults and we are to treat them as equals. Give them choices of food, how much to eat, when to go to the bathroom, and so on.

Taylor Harrington and Clara Kang created this resource as part of a community project facilitated by 4th year Bachelor of Applied Science (Occupational Therapy) students at the University of Sydney.