Disability and Language

"Person-first" versus "Identity-first" Language

In today's landscape of diversity work in higher education, disability is central to Western's commitment to increase and celebrate campus diversity. As a recent example of that commitment, the Disability Access Center (DAC) has moved into the Access, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Unit of Western Washington University.  

As Disability Services professionals, including those at DAC, work to increase inclusion and access at Western, the language we use is important.  Our language should align with the community we serve and reflect our shared beliefs about disability. The work of disability access in higher education, and that of disability justice more broadly, is dynamic and constantly evolving. Similarly, the way we talk about disability must also evolve.

As the work of disability access in higher education has changed, so has the language that we use to talk about disability.  While many of us have been taught that "person-first" language is the most respectful way to refer to disabled people, recent activism and scholarship is moving towards acknowledging that identity cannot be separated from disability, which is an intrinsic part of how a person exists in the world. Thus, the disabled community is moving towards identity first language to acknowledge the relationship between identity and disability. 

    In accordance with the Council of Advancement of Standards in Higher Education, the Disability Access Center uses and recommends the following convention

    • In general, use person-first language when talking to or about a specific disabled individual: "Drew is a person with a disability." 
    • In general, use identity-first language when talking to or about a group: "The disabled students."   


    • Person-first language: "Person with a disability.
    • Identity-first language: "Disabled people.


    2019 CAS Contextual Statement

    AHEAD Statement on Language