Disability Resource Center

Disability Etiquette

Person-First versus Identity-First Language

Person-First Language

Person-first language puts the person before the disability by using phrases like "person with a disability" or "person with autism" instead of "disabled person" or "autistic person."  

Identity-First Language

People who refer to themselves using identity-first terms may do so because they feel they are celebrating or owning their disability instead of distancing themselves from their disability by adding on the phrase “with a disability.” They use phrases like “diabetic person” or “disabled person” as opposed to “person with diabetes” or “person with a disability.” They use these identifiers because they feel it helps those people to “claim” their disabilities with pride.

What is the difference?

According to JR Thorpe, “the difference between the perspectives essentially boils down to personhood and disability: is it something that you have, or something that’s at the core of your identity?” 


If you are unsure how to speak to or about someone with a disability, it may be a good idea to inquire about their preference and use that going forward. This way you can better communicate with them. Both approaches respect disabled people, so either choice will typically work when talking or writing about disabilities.

Person-First Identity-First Offensive and Not Recommended
person with a disability disabled person the disabled, cripple, victim, spastic, spaz, handicapped, the handicapped, abnormal, dumb/deaf-mute, defect, defective, midget, or vegetable
person with an intellectual disability intellectually-disabled person mental handicap, mentally retarded, or mentally handicapped
person with a mental health disability mentally-disabled person mad, crazy, schizo, schizophrenic, insane, nuts, psycho, psychotic, demented, senile, loony, or lunatic
person who uses a wheelchair wheelchair user wheelchair-bound or confined to a wheelchair
has… (diagnosis) adjective form of diagnosis (i.e. ‘autistic’) person suffers from… afflicted with… stricken with… or victim of…
person without a disability not disabled or non-disabled normal

Service Animal Etiquette

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines service animals as dogs individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. Because service dogs are NOT considered pets, they are allowed access anywhere their handler needs to go by federal and state laws.

Under the ADA, one may ask if the dog is a service dog and what tasks the dog performs for the handler.
One may also ask if the handler has a disability, but may NOT ask what that disability is.

Respect service dogs and their handlers by following this simple guide:

Do's and Don'ts of Terminology
Do Don't
Speak to the handler when greeting a service dog team. Speak to, pet, make eye contact or distract a service dog in any way, realizing by allowing a service dog to greet you may distract the service dog from its work.
Know service dog vests and/or certification cards are not required by law, however, most service dogs werat a vest identifying them as such. Be offended if a handler does not want to answer your questions about life with a service dog.  Keep in mind the handler may be trying to get someplace in a hurry.
Allow a service dog to work without distraction. Offer a service dog food.
Know service dogs are valued and well-loved family members who enjoy their jobs. Feel bad for services dogs when you seem them working in public.  They get play time, attention and love from their handlers and immediate family members.

Mobility Aid Etiquette

  • Don't lean on a person's wheelchair, as the chair is an extension of the person using it.
  • Don't talk down to a person in a wheelchair.  Instead, crouch down or sit in a chair and talk to the person at eye level.
  • Don't put bags or other items on a person's wheelchair without consent.