Communicating With Dignity

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 26 percent of adults in the United States lives with some type of disability, but the disability is not the whole of who they are. People First Language offers a way to communicate that message.

Alex Gossage, interim director of the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living, said People First Language is about emphasizing the person rather than their disability. “A person is more than their disability,” he said. “It is only a part of who they are.”

Gossage has been at the AACIL for the last 14 years, an organization with a mission to not only empower those with disabilities but to also educate and advocate for inclusiveness.

Choosing words carefully

Part of that advocacy, he said, is teaching people to be mindful about how they talk to and about people with disabilities, reinforcing positive terms and discouraging other disparaging language. Instead of saying “disabled person,” People First Language emphasizes “person with a disability.” Words like crippled, deformed, ‘suffers from’, and ‘victim of’ are never acceptable.

The center provides disability training for businesses and organizations and provides other opportunities to open the lines of communication about disability. In the Ann Arbor Public Schools, every year the center provides an activity-based wheelchair exercise to allow children the opportunity to learn about the challenges of living with a disability.

Identity first

While People First Language is a suggested set of guidelines, Gossage said, there is also discussion among some groups about “Identity First Language.” Some people prefer that their disability be listed first in describing them, seeing it as part of their identity and something to take pride in.

People should take their cue from the person with the disability, Gossage said, and find out how they want to be referenced as individuals. Simple guidelines include addressing them by name, looking at them when speaking and speaking directly to them.

Media portrayal

Kathy Homan, president of the Washtenaw Association for Community Advocacy, says in talking to and about people with disabilities, it is important to remember “You are always a person first. Always be respectful. Ask people how they would like to be addressed and don’t lead a conversation with the disability.” Homan said it is important for those in the media to use People First Language so that people with disabilities are portrayed in an honest, respectful way.

People First Toledo

The concept of “people first” in disability advocacy has been around for many years. In fact, People First Toledo celebrated 20 years of advocacy this summer with a picnic and presentation of a certificate of recognition by City Councilman Nick Komives. The group was started by self-advocates with a mission to train others with disabilities to be self-advocates letting the world know they should be defined by their individual strengths and abilities. They are empowered to advocate for what they need to be successful.

Value the person for who they are

No matter the terminology used, Tom Rich of Toledo, Ohio thinks it is important for people with disabilities to be seen for who they are.

“I want people to see that there’s goodness you bring and happiness instead of just the disability.” Rich, who has cerebral palsy, wants people to see him for what he can do and not for what he can’t. He says he is like everyone else, even if he may need a little more help than other people doing certain things.

“We can follow our dreams. Our disability won’t stop us. It might slow me down, but it doesn’t stop me.”

See language samples, what to and not to say online at

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