What you say

What you say

“People with a disability” or “disabled people”?

There are two schools of thought on the best way to use language that is inclusive and not demeaning towards people who have a disability.

People-First Language and the Medical Model of Disability

People-First Language intends to recognise the person first and the disability second; for example, saying “the boy with autism” instead of “the autistic boy”, or “the woman with an acquired brain injury” instead of “the brain-injured woman”. People- First Language aims to reduce the social stigma of labelling by not using a disability type as an adjective to describe a person. The disability is only mentioned if relevant to the conversation or topic.

People-First Language reflects what is known as the Medical Model of Disability. In the medical model, disability is something located within the individual, and the individual needs to be treated or ‘fixed’ to eliminate or reduce the effects of disability.

Social Model of Disability Language

However, there is another view reflected in the Social Model of Disability. In the Social Model, disability is not located within an individual; rather, it is caused by social attitudes and barriers which disable people who have certain physical or biological impairments.

For example, someone who uses a mobility device, such as wheelchair, is fine and able to conduct their daily affairs until they try to enter a building that only has stairs to the entrance. The stairs, in effect, disable the person using the wheelchair.

Likewise, when people look at someone who has physical, sensory, or cognitive impairments, and make assumptions about what that person can and can’t do, such attitudes can disable the person from even having an opportunity to show they can be self-determined and do things in their own way. 

A librarian assists a woman with a dog guide to find a book on the shelves.So, what should you say (or do?)


In most cases, there is no need to mention or discuss disability if it is not relevant to the conversation.

When in doubt, ask the individual what their preference is.

People-First Language and Social Model Language share common ground on some terminology guidelines.


Avoid/Offensive Preferred
Victim of, Crippled by, Suffers from, Afflicted with, Survivor of Person who has/Person with/Person who has experienced….
Wheelchair bound, confined to a wheelchair Person who uses a wheelchair/wheelchair user
Spastic Cerebral Palsy
Deaf and dumb; the deaf Deaf, hearing impaired; deaf people
Patient Person/Individual
Special needs Person/Individual
Special needs Access needs/Individual needs


However, the two models differ when language reflects either “the person before the disability” in People-First Language versus “society disables people with impairments” in Social Model language.

Avoid/Offensive People First Language Social Model Language
Handicapped, Invalid, abnormal, different, special Person with a disability Disabled person
The disabled People with disabilities Disabled people
Cripple/crippled Person with a mobility impairment Mobility impaired person
Backwards, dull Person with a learning disability Learning difficulty
Retarded, idiot, imbecile, feeble-minded Person with a developmental disability/person with an intellectual disability Development impairment/intellectual impairment
Mute, dumb Person with a communication impairment Speech impairment
Mental, crazy, maniac, insane Person with mental illness Emotional/Cognitive impairment/Mental Health impairment
The blind People who are blind/People with vision impairment Blind people/Visually impaired person


Both models have their advocates. The State Government of Victoria recommends use of People First Language in Reporting It Right: Media guidelines for portraying people with a disability (2012). This tends to be the wider accepted language use in Australia.

But disability advocates such as Stella Young remind us not everyone with a disability agrees with People First Language. She actively criticises the Reporting it Right guidelines for failing to acknowledged not everyone identifies as a person with a disability, but may identify as a disabled person. Both the Reporting it Right guidelines and Stella Young’s response can be found through the links below.


Reporting It Right: Media guidelines for portraying people with a disability (2012) 

Reporting it right: How the Government got it wrong by Stella Young