Person First Language

Bottom of Form


Guidelines for Nonhandicapping Language in APA Journals

Committee on Disability Issues in Psychology

The use of certain words or phrases can express gender, ethnic, or racial bias either intentionally or unintentionally. The same is true of language referring to persons with disabilities, which in many instances can express negative and disparaging attitudes.

It is recommended that the word disability be used to refer to an attribute of a person, and handicap to refer to the source of limitations. Sometimes a disability itself may handicap a person, as when a person with one arm is handicapped in playing the violin. However, when the limitation is environmental, as in the case of attitudinal, legal, and architectural barriers, the disability is not handicapping—the environmental factor is. This distinction is important because the environment is frequently overlooked as a major source of limitation, even when it is far more limiting than the disability. Thus, prejudice handicaps people by denying access to opportunities; inaccessible buildings surrounded by steps and curbs handicap people who require the use of a ramp.

Use of the terms nondisabled or persons without disabilities is preferable to the term normal when comparing persons with disabilities with others. Usage of normal makes the unconscious comparison of abnormal, thus stigmatizing those individuals with differences. For example, state "a nondisabled control group," not "a normal control group."

The guiding principle for nonhandicapping language is to maintain the integrity of individuals as whole human beings by avoiding language that

  • implies that a person as a whole is disabled (e.g., disabled person)
  • equates a person with his or her condition (e.g., epileptic)
  • has superfluous, negative overtones (e.g., stroke victim)
  • is regarded as a slur (e.g., cripple).

For decades, persons with disabilities have been identified by their disability first, and as persons, second. Often, persons with disabilities are viewed as being afflicted with, or being victims of, a disability. In focusing on the disability, an individual's strengths, abilities, skills, and resources are often ignored. In many instances, persons with disabilities are viewed neither as having the capacity or right to express their goals and preferences nor as being resourceful and contributing members of society. Many words and phrases commonly used when discussing persons with disabilities reflect these biases.

Listed below are examples of negative, stereotypical, and sometimes offensive words and expressions. Also listed are examples of preferred language, which describes without implying a negative judgment. Even though their connotations may change with time, the rationale behind use of these expressions provides a basis for language reevaluation.

The specific recommendations are not intended to be all-inclusive. The basic principles, however, apply in the formulation of all nonhandicapping language.

Put people first, not their disability.

Comment: Preferred expressions avoid the implication that the person as a whole is disabled or defective.



disabled person

person with (who has) a disability

defective child

child with a congenital disability; child with a birth impairment

mentally ill person

person with mental illness or psychiatric disability

Do not label people by their disability.

Comment: Because the person is not the disability, the two concepts should be separate.




people who have schizophrenia


individuals with epilepsy


person with an amputation


individuals with paraplegia

the disabled

people with disabilities

the retarded

children with mental retardation

the mentally ill

people with a mental illness or psychiatric disability

the CMI or SPMI

people with long-term or serious and persistent mental illness or psychiatric disabilities

Do not label persons with disabilities as patients or invalids.

Comment: These names imply that a person is sick or under a doctor's care. People with disabilities should not be referred to as patients or invalids unless the illness status (if any) is under discussion or unless they are currently residing in a hospital.

Do not overextend the severity of a disability.

Comment: Preferred expressions limit the scope of the disability. Even if a person has a particular physical disability, this does not mean that the person is unable to do all physical activities. Similarly, a child with a learning disability does not have difficulty in all areas of learning nor does mental retardation imply retardation in all aspects of development. Chronicity in physical illness often implies a permanent situation, but persons with psychiatric disabilities are able to recover.



the physically disabled

individuals with a physical disability

the learning disabled

children with specific learning disabilities

retarded adult

adult with mental retardation

chronic mental illness

long-term or persistent mental illness or psychiatric disability

Use emotionally neutral expressions.

Comment: Objectionable expressions have excessive, negative overtones and suggest continued helplessness.



stroke victim

individual who had a stroke

afflicted with cerebral palsy

person with cerebral palsy

suffering from multiple sclerosis

people who have multiple sclerosis

Emphasize abilities, not limitations.

Comment: The person is not confined to a wheelchair but uses it for mobility; a person is not homebound who is taught or who works at home.



confined to a wheelchair

uses a wheelchair


child who is taught at home

Avoid offensive expression.




person who has a limp


person with a shortened arm


child with Down Syndrome

crazy, paranoid

person with symptoms of mental illness

Focus on the right and capacity of people with disabilities to express their own goals and preferences and to exercise control over their own services and supports.

Comment: In many instances, persons with disabilities are not given opportunities to participate in decisions regarding the services or supports they will receive as part of a treatment or rehabilitation program. Instead, they are viewed as requiring "management" as patients or cases, rather than as individuals with goals and preferences that should be taken into account.




discussion of suitable and preferred living arrangements

professional judgment

include a consideration of a person's goals and preferences

patient management, case management

care coordination, supportive services, resource coordination, assistance

Seeing people with disabilities as a resource and as contributing community members, not as a burden or problem.

Comment: Discussions regarding the service needs of persons with disabilities and their families often use terms that define the individual as a burden or a problem. Instead, terms that reflect the special needs of these persons are preferable, with a clear recognition of the responsibility of communities for inclusion and support of persons with disabilities.



family burden

family supports needs

problem of mental illness or of the mentally ill

challenges that people with psychiatric disabilities face

community support needs of individuals

responsibilities of communities for inclusion and support

[April 1992]

share this page:

Related Topics


© 2017 American Psychological Association

750 First St. NE, Washington, DC 20002-4242

Telephone: (800) 374-2721; (202) 336-5500

TDD/TTY: (202) 336-6123


Connect with APA Style:

APA Style Blog:




  The Team at Educator Pages