When writing about anyone with a disability—whether physical, intellectual, or psychological/emotional—there are two types of languages that can be used: "people-first" or “identity-first.”
Identity-first language means positioning the disability first. For many people, disability is a primary aspect of their identity and lived experience. It refers not only to bodily or mental impairment or difference, but also to the profoundly shaping experience of living in an ableist society. For this reason, some disabled people prefer identity-first language, both claiming disability as central to their sense of self and calling attention to the disadvantages imposed by an ableist world.
You should ask the person what their preference is, both in how they are described as having a disability in general, as well as their specific disability. For example, someone may prefer “person with a disability,” but also use “Autistic person,” in which case they use both person-first and identity-first language, depending on context.
Avoid Ableist Language
Ableism is discrimination or prejudice in favor of people without disabilities. Many phrases that were meant to denigrate people with disabilities in the past have become surprisingly common today. Using ableist language causes us to internalize biases about disability. Be conscious of the language that you use and avoid using ableist language, including:
- Blind spot
- Tone deaf
- That’s so lame
- I stand with/stand against, etc.,
- That was crazy/insane/nuts
- If you are interviewing someone with a disability, whether apparent or not, be sure that they are aware of how much detail and information you will be sharing about their disability. Be sure the subject’s disclosure of this information was intentional, and that they grant permission for it to be used in content.
- When a disability topic is being reported, every effort should be made to interview and quote disabled people affected by or involved in the reported issue or situation.
- If the disability is not part of the story and there isn't a need to include it, don't.
- Avoid euphemisms such as “special needs” or “differently abled.”
- Don't refer to someone who does not have a disability as "able-bodied." You can simply say they do not have a disability (or, if necessary, use "non-disabled") when it's necessary to distinguish that someone doesn't have a disability. Avoid using the term "normal."
- Avoid sensationalizing a disability by using phrases like, but not limited to, "afflicted with," "suffers from," or "victim of.”
- Avoid “inspiration porn,” defined as using an individual’s experience as inspiration for others. This is patronizing, harmful, and offensive.
- Use "accessible" when describing a space, location, or event that complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
- People with disabilities should not be referred to as "patients" unless they are being discussed in terms of a healthcare setting. Disability, broadly conceived, includes chronic illness and long-term diseases. Many people with other disabilities may also have such conditions, but they should still not be referred to as “patients,” unless, again, the topic is positioning them as patients in a health care context.
- Always make events, content, and social media accessible for all audiences. Refer to the University of Utah’s Accessibility website [will include link when ready.]
University of Utah Resources
The University of Utah campus has services for staff, students, and faculty with disabilities and a wide variety of accommodations can be made if needed.
For students, visit the Center for Disability & Access. The Center for Disability & Access is the designated office at the U, which evaluates disability documentation, determines eligibility, and implements reasonable accommodations for enrolled students as guided by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and university policy.
For faculty and staff, visit Human Resources accommodations and the Office of Equal Opportunity, Affirmative Action and Title IX disability resources pages.
The Office of Equal Opportunity, Affirmative Action, and Title IX (OEO/AA) is dedicated to providing a fair and equitable environment for all to pursue their academic and professional endeavors and to equally access university programs.
ADA National Network – Guidelines for Writing About People with Disabilities
National Center on Disability and Journalism (NCDJ) Disability Language Style Guide
SPRC, Style Guide – Reporting on Mental Health
National Association of the Deaf
What is Disability Justice? by the performance/activist group, Sins Invalid