Navigating People-First and Identity-First Communication 

Navigating People-First and Identity-First Communication 

Addressing a person with a disability is much like engaging with any other individual. Such interactions lay the foundation for comfortable conversations that foster rapport and respect.

This article delves into the dialogue surrounding people-first and identity-first languages. People-first language prioritizes the person before their disability and emphasizes their humanity. Meanwhile, identity-first language acknowledges and, in some cases, highlights disability as a significant part of a person’s identity.

We’ll explore both perspectives and the intricacies of language selection in pursuit of more inclusive, disability-affirming communities.


Disability Inclusive Communication 

Disability-inclusive communication is all about recognizing and respecting diverse human experiences while ensuring that communication is open and welcoming to all. This approach to communication goes beyond just addressing people with disabilities; it benefits everyone.

Related Reading: People with invisible disabilities are everywhere 


The Complexity of Language Choices in Disability-Inclusive Communication 

Choosing the right words in disability-inclusive communication isn’t always straightforward. While some phrases are clearly disrespectful, others fall into a gray area. This ambiguity comes from the person’s age, background, how they feel about their disability and personal preference.

Sometimes, people will even use words considered offensive to refer to themselves or those with similar conditions, a process often referred to as “reclaiming” or “reappropriating” language. Also, people with disabilities may use ableist language because it is culturally commonplace to do so. Individuals with mental health conditions might use terms like “insane” to describe situations, and those who are blind may casually say they “see your point.”

Finally, many people with disabilities often feel that others are overly cautious when interacting with them, leading to awkward exchanges or a lack of inclusion altogether. “Walking on eggshells” like this stifles open communication, and many people with disabilities prefer you saying the wrong thing and correcting yourself instead of saying nothing at all.

In this intricate language landscape, engaging in open conversations about inclusive language is essential. Language is constantly evolving, and we are all learning. Communicating with empathy and respect, coupled with a readiness to apologize and improve when mistakes are made, is the key to fostering more disability-inclusive communities.


Creating an Inclusive Environment for All 

Just like anyone else, individuals with disabilities have the same desire to communicate and form meaningful relationships. It’s essential to recognize them as friends and peers who share the exact social and emotional needs as everyone else. This approach encourages open, unbiased dialogue.

Here are some tips for creating a disability-inclusive communication environment:


1. Embrace Open Communication

Welcoming individuals with disabilities into conversations requires a commitment to open and respectful dialogue. The key is to approach everyone, regardless of their disability status, with kindness and respect. Treat them and communicate with them as you would anyone else.

Related Reading: Disability Inclusion Starts with You 


2. Prioritize Ongoing Education

Inclusive language keeps changing to be more respectful and inclusive of persons with disabilities. It’s essential to keep learning and adapting. Educate yourself on topics such as person-first vs. identity-first language, avoiding stigmatizing or derogatory words, and learning more about the lived experiences of people with disabilities.


3. Observe Nuances in Language

Language choices can be intricate and nuanced. Some phrases that may seem disrespectful in one context are commonly used by individuals with disabilities themselves. Language is a powerful tool, and even well-intentioned words can sometimes perpetuate stereotypes or inadvertently offend people.

Here are some common phrases and words to avoid, as highlighted by the Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion (EARN) and their recommended word choices to be more respectful and inclusive.¹

Use Avoid
“People/Individuals with disabilities” “The disabled”
“People with disabilities/specific disability” “Handicapped”
“People with intellectual or cognitive disabilities” “Mentally defective”
“Individuals who are hard of hearing” “Deaf and dumb”
“People with physical disabilities/mobility challenges” “Crippled”
“People who are unable to speak/use synthetic speech” “Dumb” or “mute”
“People with epilepsy/seizure disorders” “Epileptic”
“Wheelchair user” “Wheelchair bound”
“People living with” or “individuals who experience” “Afflicted by”

4. Overcome Fear of Offense

Many people with disabilities experience the feeling that others are “walking on eggshells” around them, which can lead to awkward or strained interactions. To address this, we seek to create an environment where disability is normalized and accepted, and people with disabilities are seen the same as their peers without a disability.

However, realize that mistakes will be made. When this happens, apologize and seek to learn from your mistakes. Build a culture of openness and grace where mistakes are used as opportunities for growth.

Related Reading: Everything you know about disability inclusion is WRONG 



Discover more about disability-diverse communication with Peak Performers. Explore our blog, share insights with your peers, and start a path of continuous learning. Let’s foster discussions that support our friends, colleagues, and bosses with disabilities at work.

If you’re seeking employment opportunities, or if you’re an employer looking to build an inclusive workplace, get in touch with us to explore how we can collaborate.



1 “Person-First and Identity-First Language.” Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion (EARN), https://askearn.org/page/people-first-language. Accessed 25 Oct. 2023.


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