Using the Right Word

Using the Right Word

People-First Language Versus Identity-First Language

Barbara McClintock, MA, Certified Translator

People-first language, also called person-first language, is growing in popularity. Partly driven by the Black Lives Matter movement in North America, inclusiveness and diversity are now gaining traction in government and boardrooms across Canada. People-first language, which is the first rung on the ladder of inclusiveness and diversity, is intended to avoid dehumanizing language. It’s easy to understand that calling someone an addict or a psycho is a condemnation. It’s much more positive when you refer to someone as a person who is recovering from a substance abuse disorder or a person with a psychiatric disorder. “Offender” and “inmate” are considered too negative by some specialists in the United States who are trying to change their legislation to read “incarcerated individual” or “adult in custody.”2 The reasoning behind this is that the language the media and legislation use impacts how people see themselves, leading some individuals to internalize a negative self image.

When you call someone a diabetic, disabled, deaf or blind, you are labelling them with their state of health or medical condition and not looking at them as a complex individual with many facets other than illness. More positive alternatives are to say person with diabetes, person with a disability, person with a hearing impairment or person with a visual impairment. Instead of referring to someone as being confined to a wheelchair, say person who uses a wheelchair.

What is identity-first language?

People-first language emphasizes the equality and dignity of people with disabilities. Employers should always use people-first language when talking about disability issues regardless of how a person chooses to self-identify. That’s up to them so they should not be corrected if they choose to use “identify-first” language and call themselves handicapped or disabled, e.g., “I’m disabled.” Some disability activists have brought back the old term “cripple” by putting it in the title of an online publication, Cr*pple Magazine.[1] Identity-first highlights the person’s acceptance of their identity. Since this is a very sensitive issue, it is always a good idea to ask the person which term they prefer.

Negative labels                                                   More positive expressions

blind person with a visual impairment
deaf Person with a hearing impairment
diabetic person with diabetes
handicapped, crippled or disabled person with a disability
inmate or offender incarcerated individual or adult in custody
person confined to a wheelchair person who uses a wheelchair


The Translation Bureau has a comprehensive accessibility glossary online at:, which contains English and French equivalents for 342 expressions related to persons with disabilities.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

Barbara McClintock, MA, Certified Translator, has acquired over 20 years of experience in translation in both the private and public sectors, mainly in administration, accounting and related fields.

More information

  1. Askearn