Words matter. They help us understand each other and the things around us. Sometimes well-intentioned people do not know how to talk about disabilities and accidentally use language that is offensive. The common words of today may become offensive at a later point in time as more self-advocates discuss how those words make them feel.

As a general rule, language about individuals with disabilities should reflect that which is used by self-advocates to describe themselves. Occasionally, self-advocates don’t agree on which words are best. For example, some people on the autism spectrum use identity-first language (“I am autistic”), and other people use person-first language (“I am a person with autism.”) Judy Endow, a well-known self-advocate on the autism spectrum, discusses some of the reasons in this article while highlighting what is most important:

“Rather than seeing the polarized language of person with autism and autistic, I see a unifying construct. I now see that when Kathie Snow invited us to use person-first language she was actually inviting us to come into a person-first attitude. And it is this person-first attitude that unites the word usages of person with autism and autistic. We all want to be included in the human race.” – Judy Endow

To promote understanding, here is a “cheat sheet” that describes why some words should never be used (in red), why some words may offend someone (in yellow), and a few options that most self-advocates promote as acceptable language (in green).

Objectionable/Offensive Terms

Words Matter

 Sometimes Objectionable Terms

Words Matter

Acceptable Terms

Words Matter

View our Facebook Live Discussion: “Words Matter: Talking About Disabilities”

About the Author

Desiree Kameka, Director of Housing

Desiree is the project lead for the Autism Housing Network. Her work for the Madison House Autism Foundation focuses on researching housing issues, advocating on issues of autism in adulthood, and presenting her work at local and national gatherings. She visits residential communities and social enterprises across the USA and highlights their unique victories and learning curves while sharing stories of individuals on the spectrum or who have other developmental disabilities. Her passion is empowering autistic adults and parents to create a future that is exciting and life affirming by offering small group consultations for forming projects.