Imagine two situations where children are playing:

Situation 1 | The five-year-olds play joyfully outside. Joe is autistic and Tom is disabled. They show great difficulties in the game, because Joe isolates himself and Tom cannot move his wheelchair through the playground area.

Situation 2 | The five-year-olds play joyfully outside, except for Joe and Tom. Tom uses a wheelchair, and as the floor is uneven, he moves around slowly, hindering his participation in the game; Joe does not initiate the game, and also isn’t invited to play along.


The words or expressions we choose to describe children, as well as the way we interact with them, influence the perception they build about themselves [1,2].  Using words – and consequently acting in the same way – that focus on the individual instead of the disability enable children to achieve the best outcomes in both their development and wellbeing.

In fact, words are important, and so, we will write two blog messages about this subject, more specifically about the words used to talk about disability.

In this first blog message, we will think about the words we use when talking or writing about children with disabilities, which can contribute to foster or hinder inclusive education; in the next message – The reason behind the words, we go through an exercise looking for the theoretical foundation of the concepts behind the words. We do this assuming that language is critical for thought development and that thought guides the way we act.

Ask yourself these questions:

How often…?

Adapted from Russell (2008) [3]


People-first language: the power of words

Words are powerful [2], that’s why it is essential to think about and choose wisely the words we use when communicating with or about children with disabilities! People-first language is a perspective that recommends paying special attention to the way we talk and write about people with disabilities, in order to minimize bias or stereotypes [2]. Therefore, people-first language implies highlighting the person, instead of the impairment/disability, avoiding the use of adjectives as nouns (e.g., autistic), as shown in situation 2. In the table below, we present some words/expressions that should be avoided and some suggestions to adopt instead [1,2].


To avoid… To use…
Impaired/Disabled. Person with an impairment/disability.
Joe is autistic. Joe has autism spectrum disorder.
Tom is quadriplegic. Tom has a motor disability.
Anne is developmentally delayed. Anne has a developmental delay.
Ben is a downie. Ben has Down Syndrome.
Bathroom for the disabled. Accessible bathroom.

 To be and to have: a disability as an ontic quality or as a characteristic among others

As any other child, children with disabilities are unique individuals, with multiple characteristics. Nonetheless, they are often referred to by their disabilities, as shown in the first situation. Highlighting the disability as the child’s most important feature, is to depreciate him/her as an individual, because:

– the child is not his/her disability;

– the disability doesn’t define the person;

– the disability is just one of the aspects of the child’s life.

In conclusion, a child with a disability is much more than a diagnosis.


To think about…

– Are you consciously concerned about the way you talk and write about children with disabilities?

– How do you usually refer to children with disabilities in your classroom?

– What do you do when other professionals use language that excludes, doesn’t dignify or evidences low expectations towards children with disabilities?


Text written by Manuela Sanches-Ferreira and Carla Peixoto



[1] Blaska, J. (1993). The power of language: speak and write using “Person First”. In M. Nagler (Ed.), Perspectives on disabilities (pp. 25–32). Health Markets Research.

[2] Snow, K. (2009). To ensure inclusion, freedom, and respect for all, we must use PEOPLE FIRST LANGUAGE

[3] Russell, C. L. (2008). How are your person first skills? A self-assessment. Teaching Exceptional Children, 40(5), 40-43.



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