Disabled Person or Person With a Disability?

Many people are confused and apprehensive about how to refer to different groups of people. That includes people with disabilities, as well as older adults, for example. The words you use change over time and new words emerge. Simply put, it is often unclear how to refer to other people in a way that is respectful.

Read on to discover more about disability-first vs. person-first language and preferences. Learn to navigate the words you use with greater success. Sarah Brunke, an occupational therapy student and disability rights advocate, was interviewed for this blog post.

Language about older adults

One of the most complicated things about the words you use is that they change over time. In fact, you may have noticed that you have changed your language about older adults in the last decade. For example, “older adults” were previously referred to as:

  • Seniors
  • Elderly
  • Aging
  • Retirees
  • Geriatric

Therefore, it is understandable that many people don’t know how to respectfully navigate vocabulary. A blog post titled, “When Does Someone Become ‘Old’?” by Joe Pinsker (2020) focused on the conflict in words used to refer to older adults. Furthermore, survey results found that the term “older adult” was most preferred by voters about themselves (Pinsker, 2020) 1.  However, it isn’t that simple. Many people care deeply about what they are called, on the other hand, other people do not care at all.

group of older adults jogging together in a park

For example, some people favour the word “senior” as it indicates wisdom and respect. Nevertheless, other people feel the word “senior” term is dated and indicates frailty or physical and cognitive limitations.

The language of disability

Infographic defining disability-first language versus person-first language.

Person-first language

Similarly, there is variability in the use of words to describe disabled persons. Some people believe that person-first language is the most appropriate way to refer to a person with a disability. Person-first language means you describe the person first, then their disability. For example, you would say, “a child with autism” to be person-first. Instead of saying, an “autistic child.” Person-first language was previously thought to be more respectful because it acknowledges the person, first rather than the disability. Read on though! Vocabulary and the words you use are changing, because disabled persons are sharing their voices about how they want to be called.

Disability-first language

For many people, their disability is a large part of their identity. It is integral to who they are as a person. Therefore, disabled people may in fact prefer disability-first language. Disability-first language indicates that the person wants to have their disability stated first. So from the example above, you would say, an “autistic child” for disability-first language describing a child.

Additionally, disabled people feel that person-first language fails to acknowledge a significant portion of their identity. Burke explains that she prefers disability-first language. She refers to herself as a “disabled individual” rather than “a person with a disability”. Moreover, Burke explains that she feels that separating her identity from her disability removes a significant aspect of who she is as a person.

“When we view disability as a negative word we indicate that it is a bad thing that we want to fix in a person.”

Sarah Brunke, occupational therapy student and disability advocate.

Do you think of disability as something negative? Brunke reiterated that language matters. She explains that by dismissing a person’s disability, you may be playing into the negative stereotypes associated with disabilities. This is a common, unconscious bias. It is critical to think about what words you use when interacting with different people.

Ask and respect personal preference

Do you wonder how to navigate your vocabulary? Person-first or disability-first? Ultimately, the most respectful thing to do is to ask people directly what they prefer. Whether that is an older adult or a disabled person, it is important to understand that each person’s choice can be different.

Another example is the difference between the words deaf and Deaf. Lowercase deaf refers to the condition of hearing loss. A person who says they are deaf, will not likely have a strong association with the Deaf community. Whereas a person who uses the uppercase term Deaf will likely have a strong association with the community of people who are deaf. They also share a language, like American Sign Language (ASL), and importantly, they share Deaf culture.

All of this vocabulary may seem confusing and overwhelming. The key is to ask. While asking might feel uncomfortable or unnatural, it is actually a sign of respect.

How to ask about preferred vocabulary

Even though it may seem like an uncomfortable question to ask someone’s preferred vocabulary, Brunke explains that it does not have to be a difficult conversation. Focus on framing the question in a way that you want to learn from the person. Simply ask someone what they prefer. When you assume, you remain ignorant. Asking demonstrates that you want to understand and respect a person’s preferences. Say, “how would you like to be called, disabled person or person with a disability?”

Disability vocabulary may seem confusing and complicated. However, Brunke emphasizes that language and words do matter. The words you use to describe people hold a lot of significance. Therefore, it is important to take the time to reflect. So, think about the words you use and your own biases. Brunke reiterates the importance of simply asking what people prefer and then respecting their personal choices.

Thank you to Sarah Brunke for your contributions and insights into the vocabulary of disability! Learn about Brunke’s advocacy work; follow her on Twitter.

Interested in other topics that explore disability? Check out these blog posts:

Create a More Welcoming World and Tame Sensory Overload

Get expert tips and resources delivered straight to your inbox! 

  • Craft sensory-friendly experiences 
  • Understand sensory sensitivity and overload
  • Make a difference in the lives of others
  • Be the first to know when new courses and products are launched
I am interested in:(Required)
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.


  1. Pinsker, J. (2020). What’s the Best Term for Referring to Old People? The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2020/01/old-people-older-elderly-middle-age/605590/
Skip to content