People First Language (PFL) is a way of communicating that reflects knowledge and respect for people with disabilities by choosing words that recognize the person first and foremost as the primary reference and not his or her disability. 

  • Empowering people with disabilities is crucial to helping them succeed. Using terms like the “R” word, dumb, and handicapped can put disabilities in a negative context.  
  • You can empower people with disabilities with vocabulary! First, it’s important to ask the person with disabilities how they prefer to be addressed. We all have unique ways of identifying ourselves.  
  • If you don’t have the opportunity to speak to the person first, considering phrases like these: 

Say this!  

Instead of  

Person with disability (any diagnosis) 

S/he has special/complex needs 

Person with ______ 

Disabled/handicapped person. 

S/he is special needs. 

______ person 

She has a learning disability.  

She is learning disabled.  

He has a physical disability. 

He is crippled or handicapped. 

He receives special education services.  

He is in special education.  

She has complex needs.  

She’s severely disabled. 

She is nonverbal. 

She is mute.  

She can’t talk. 

He has a mental health condition.  

He is mentally ill. 



Putting the person in front of their disability or diagnosis can go a long way to helping them feel included and considered. But you can never go wrong asking a person how they’d like to be addressed!