ADA. PFL. IFL. What is this, a tech site?
Don’t get intimidated by the acronyms. When it comes down to it, people with disabilities simply want to be addressed with understanding and respect – just like anyone else. But it’s still important to inform yourself on systems of speaking, because language is important in communicating that essential respect. “What you call people is how you treat them,” in the words of Nick Marcellino, brother of the nine-year-old girl for whom Rosa’s Law, passed in 2010, was named. That law replaced the term “mental retardation” with “intellectual disability,” which is great. But there are plenty of other phrases to look at carefully and be mindful in our use of them.
Person First Language (PFL) is the structure you’re probably already familiar with. This is the school of thought that guides you to say about your friend, “He’s a person with diabetes,” rather than “He’s a diabetic person.” You put the “person” first in your language.
But what if he doesn’t like that? There’s a growing countermovement within the disability community that would rather put a person’s disability front and center in our language, using what’s called Identity First Language (or IFL). IFL advocate Emily Ladau puts the reasoning behind it like this: “‘Disabled’ is so much more than a descriptor. It is an identity and culture unto itself. It is a source of pride. So, I am disabled. I am disabled just as much as I am a brown-haired, brown-eyed, glasses-wearing female. It is part of me. It is part of who I am.”
So, which one is right? Neither and both. Language, like culture, is always evolving, and the best way to proceed is probably to ask individuals on a case-by-case basis how they’d like to be referred to. Chances are, they’d rather you just use their actual name, anyway!
If you don’t know or can’t ask the preferences of the individual or group you are writing or speaking about, it’s probably best to use people first language as the default. For example: Deaf people prefer identity first, while people with intellectual disabilities prefer people first. For more specific community preferences, check out these excellent guidelines from the National Center on Disability and Journalism’s Disability Language Style Guide.
- Person-First Language – “My friend is a person with a disability.”
- Identity-First Language – “My friend is a disabled person.”
- Safest default – Person-first
- But – you can generally just ask the person.
(Oh, and ‘ADA’ is the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability. But you probably already knew that!)
Jared Price, with his guide dog, Middleton. Jared will tell you he’s a “blind person,” not a “person with blindness.”
Why They’re Not “Special” Needs.Watch
Disable Disrespect breaks down how to show respect through your word choices.Read
The Think Inclusive article in which disabled person Emily Ladau explains why she prefers Identity-First Language.Read
The American Psychological Association gives a concise rundown on how to choose your words carefully and respectfully.Read
People with disabilities make up 20% of the population, but only 2% of the images we see in the media. The Disability Collection is working to fix that.Read
Check out these excellent guidelines for journalists and writers, from the Center for Disability Rights, clearly outlining a balanced perspective on PFL and IFLY and explaining why certain language is preferable.Read
“How to Write and Report About People with Disabilities, 8th Edition” by Research and Training Center on Independent Living at The University of KansasRead
“Modern Disability 101” by AmeriCorpsRead
“Awareness Theme Essay Contest” by Indiana Governor’s Council for People with DisabilitiesRead