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Disability Etiquette Part I: Put People First

Person-first language strives to communicate that an individual who has a particular condition or disability is not defined by that condition. In accordance with this language shift, the use of “to be” has been replaced with a form of “to have.”

For example rather than being schizophrenic, John has schizophrenia; rather than saying Mary “is bi-polar,” we say that she “has a bi-polar disorder.”  In this regard, person-first language has a literal as well as more abstract meaning. The word “person” or its equivalent is placed first in a respectful, descriptive clause. In addition, we communicate our understanding that individuals who have disabilities or medical conditions are first and foremost people— they are not their conditions.

Choosing respectful language and holding a respectful attitude are part of what is called disability etiquette. Like all etiquette, it is guided by two fundamental principles

  • treat the person with respect and kindness, and
  • strive to make him or her feel comfortable.

Another component of respectful language is to avoid negative labeling. For example, saying that a person “uses a wheelchair” is preferable to describing her as “wheelchair-bound” or referring to him as “an invalid” or “handicapped.” Similarly, one “has ALS” rather than “suffering from” or being “a victim of” ALS. To do otherwise portrays persons as being objects of pity.

Be prepared for respectful language to evolve

While the role of language in the context of disability etiquette is to communicate and also to be respectful, we know that society’s understanding of what is most respectful has changed over the years.

In the past, it was considered appropriate to say that one had “mental retardation.” While mental retardation is a clinical term that signifies a low IQ, the R-word is widely used today as a pejorative term intended as an insult. As a result there is a national campaign, Spread the Word to End the Word, to encourage people to pledge to stop using the word “retard.”

Now we say that an individual has a “developmental disability,” or a “cognitive disability.” In this usage, “developmental” refers to the fact that person’s disability was present at or near birth, and that it became apparent during childhood. It does not mean that he or she is unable to learn or develop.

There is seldom a reason to introduce our acquaintances by anything other than their names. There are times, however, when it is important to identify an individual’s disability. For instance, at Via our drivers need detailed information in order to accommodate our clients’ specific needs as relates to their disability.

The language we choose conveys both information and also our attitudes about people. If you are unsure of what terminology to use, you may want to ask the individual about his or her preferences, or listen carefully to how people in the disability community refer to themselves or others.

Barbara Borg, Customer & Community Services Coordinator



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