Person First Terminology

Person First Language

  • Language that places the person before the label is called person-first terminology. It acknowledges that a person is a person first. The label is not the person. Person-first terminology further acknowledges that a person has many different characteristics; they have strengths, interests and challenges. A disability is only one aspect of a person. For example, say “a boy with autism” instead of “an autistic boy.” Terminology can have an impact especially for the individual described. Terminology can lift someone up or bring him down. It can also perpetuate stereotypes and influence how others not only see a person, but also how they treat the person. Terminology, therefore, needs to be respectful and model acceptance. Recognizing that terminology can influence perception, some federal, state and local Santa Clara County agencies have begun to use person-first terminology:  

    Originally, Public Law 94-142, passed in 1975, was titled the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. However, in 1990 Public Law 101-476 amended the title to Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  

  • The California Advisory Commission on Special Education strongly promotes person-first terminology in all its communications whether verbal or written.

    • Place the student first before the disability
      • A child with autism, instead of an autistic child  
    • Place groups of students first before the disability
      • Students in special education, instead of special education students
    • Use respectful terms when referring to peer groups
      • Students without disabilities instead of typical students  
    • Model back person-first terminology when others do not use it
      • When someone says, “special education students…” just continue the conversation by modeling back, “yes…. students in special education…”  
    • Inform others about person-first terminology  
    • Remember that changing the way we speak is a process and takes time

     For more information about person-first terminology, please contact the Inclusion Collaborative at (408) 453-6756 or visit