Disability Language: How Much Does It Matter?

While appropriate language is important, inclusive actions speak volumes too.

Posted Jul 27, 2020

Source: AndreyPopov/istock

By Stuart Kamenetsky and Alexander Parent

The American Psychological Association has long advocated for the use of person-first language (e.g., a person with depression) when referring to people with disabilities. It has also acknowledged that some disability groups may prefer to use identity-first language (e.g., a depressed person). The debate over language use is as heated and contentious as ever.

Using anecdotal examples, this article will argue that focusing on language rather than on actions is unlikely to result in community integration of people with disabilities. It will also provide recent empirical evidence suggesting that while language type matters, it may not matter as much or in the way that many of us think it does.

Steven’s Story: Acceptance and inclusion in the workplace are more important than using the “right” language

Steven was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy (CP) at birth. It primarily affects his mobility due to instability on one side of his body. Unlike so many other individuals who have CP, it had no effect on his speech. While in college Steven recognized that in order to continue funding his education he needed to get a job. Encouraged by family and friends to leverage his ability to easily strike up conversations, Steven felt that a job as a barista would be a good fit.

He applied to work for a large coffee chain and was reassured both during the initial interview and throughout the training process that every measure would be taken to allow him to excel at what he was already great at; being welcoming, outgoing, and attentive to the needs of customers.

Coworkers at the location where Steven was going to start, having known him previously as a friend of one of the staff members and a frequent customer, welcomed and included him as a member of the team from the beginning.

He began to bond with his coworkers, and the limitations imposed by his CP faded away.

Whenever his CP came up in conversations with coworkers, it was downplayed or maneuvered around. Derogatory words to describe Steven’s differences were never used, though coworkers were often hesitant as they didn’t know “the right way” to address Steven’s CP. He was typically referred to as a person first, and the fact that he had CP was minimized.

On the rare occasion that a coworker misspoke, the shift supervisor on duty coached that coworker on company policies around the use of derogatory language towards customers and fellow baristas alike. Steven felt safe as a member of the team just like everybody else. He even developed a healthy enough dynamic with his colleagues that it allowed for the occasional self-deprecating joke, eliciting a warm and supportive chuckle from his teammates.

Steven’s condition affects his energy levels, fine motor skills, and ability to lift heavy objects. A large portion of the work at the café involved preparing drinks and moving of boxes of supplies and garbage bags—tasks that require these skills.

The manager allowed his staff to negotiate flexible task assignments so that the workplace can benefit from what each employee can offer—a strategy that enabled Steven to thrive. For example, Steven would collect and fill a light garbage bag and prepare it for disposal, after which a coworker would tie the bag and dispose of it. Steven, while taking orders and handling payments, engaged in short conversations with the more than 200 daily clients who came in for their morning caffeine rush.

He later learned that his outgoing personality and efficiency boosted sales at the location he was posted at. This task-sharing dynamic was bottom-up and not mandated by management. It allowed for the seamless functioning of the team and along with it, Steven’s feeling that he was pulling his weight. While Steven was pleased that appropriate and sensitive disability language was used at his workplace, he thrived primarily due to the flexible task assignment and his co-workers’ willingness to switch around tasks that would enable him to contribute.

Steven eventually transferred locations and had to adjust to a new team dynamic and a new management style. Despite being spoken to as an equal member of his new team, Steven was struck by how often the kind words that were said to him did not always match the expectations his supervisors had of his work.

The new location was far busier than the previous one, and there was frequent staff and management turnover. Citing company policy, the managers believed that for the sake of equality at the workplace and the proper functioning of a business, Steven had to perform all duties “just like everyone else.” Steven’s CP rendered this impossible. He could not perform some of the physical tasks well enough. It was unsafe for him and for his co-workers and made him feel inadequate. Steven fully understood how the café needed to operate but lost the chance to thrive since he was not given the opportunity to contribute in areas where he excelled.

This was, of course, also a missed opportunity for the café.

The new managers’ focus on appropriate language and treating Steven “equally” for the sake of fairness for all, however well-intended, led to lower productivity, a poor fit between Steven and the workplace, and fractured relationships with management and co-workers. While Steven was always referred to as an equal member of the team, he felt that this was superficial.

The use of words to respect his personhood were outweighed by policies seeking to equalize Steven on tasks that were not feasible for him to accomplish. His personhood was given tacit respect, but the actions of his managers left Steven feeling like his adversity due to his CP was neither understood nor accepted. Despite the reiteration of the company’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, Steven felt like he would never excel or fit the model of the employee he was expected to be. Steven ultimately left the coffee chain after three years.

It is clear that factors such as the quieter first location and flexible managerial style that allowed coworkers with whom Steven has already bonded—as compared with the lack of any of this at the second location—determined where Steven would thrive and where he would fail.

Appropriate language and inclusive company policy were the same at both locations. But at the first Steven was fully accepted as a person with CP and celebrated for bringing in more business due to his outstanding people skills. At the second location the infamous “deficit model” was applied; Steven had to develop skills so that he could become just like everybody else. This was an impossible expectation given Steven’s CP and no positive form of language would mitigate the hardship this caused him.

Sam’s Story: Insistence on using the “right” language can actually be harmful

Another example comes from the recent Netflix series Atypical (Season 1, Episode 4). Doug Gardner is a father who attends a weekly support group for parents of children who have Autism. Doug’s son, Sam, the star of the show, is an 18-year-old high school student learning to navigate the complexities of fitting in as a teen who is “on the spectrum."

The group leader scolds Doug as she objects to him not using person-first language. While Doug struggled to accept his son, Sam, he now finally takes the brave step to seek help and learn new ways to be closer to him. The unwelcoming atmosphere at the support group, implying that he doesn’t care because he doesn’t use the “right” language, was heartbreaking and clearly did not provide Doug with the support needed to accept his son and find ways to be closer to him.

While the group leader used person-first language to advance disability issues, the result was just the opposite when interacting with Doug. 

Empirical evidence: Person-first language isn’t necessarily “the best” language

A recent study at the University of Toronto Mississauga’s Department of Psychology examined the impact of language type on perception of disability images with text captions. About 200 undergraduate students viewed disability images containing one of six disability captions: disability-first (e.g., “The Deaf), defiant self-naming (e.g., “I’m Deaf and proud of it”), impairment (e.g., “hearing impaired”), negative (e.g., “Dumb-Mute”), person-first (e.g., “individual with a hearing impairment”), and apologetic naming (e.g., “auditorily challenged”).

Participants completed measures of identification, emotion, willingness to help, willingness to include, and perceptions of capabilities and rights. The differences between the conditions based on the type of caption used were quite small.

Person-first and apologetic naming did not result in more positive perceptions of disability. Rather, defiant self-naming evoked the most positive emotions and identification, and greater perceived capabilities and willingness to include, whereas negative language evoked the most negative perceptions of images. Results suggest that the elimination of negative language and the use of empowering defiant self-naming by people with disabilities, rather than a focus on using person-first and apologetic naming, may be more effective in reducing negative disability stereotypes.


While language matters, it may not matter as much as we think. The North American commitment to person-first language may be partly a result of our cultural focus on individualism. People from collectivistic cultures and some disability groups, such as the Deaf community, often prefer identity-first language, as their identity is defined to a considerable extent by their group belonging.

Whatever language we use—let’s indeed make sure to eliminate negative terms and be respectful of the preferences of the people who have disabilities. As long as we communicate in a respectful, sincere, and caring manner, accept others and focus on their skills rather than on their deficits, we will likely come closer to the type of inclusive, barrier-free society we hope to build.


Stuart B. Kamenetsky is Professor, Teaching Stream and Director of the Undergraduate Program at the Department of Psychology, University of Toronto Mississauga.

Correspondence about this article can be sent to: stuart.kamenetsky@utoronto.ca

Alexander S. Parent is a recent graduate of the Peace, Conflict, and Justice Studies Program at the University of Toronto. He is working towards furthering a career at the intersection of disability lived experience, technological change, and inclusive government policy.