Why I Say “Disabled Person” Rather Than “Person with a Disability”


Written by Mackenzie Saunders:

There is a big debate in the disability community regarding the language we use to refer to ourselves and others. Some people prefer to use person-first language, referring to the disability community as “people with disabilities.” The main argument for using person-first language is that this wording shows that a person is not defined by their disability. Others, like myself, prefer to use the term “disabled person” or “disabled people.”

Many people are taken aback when I say “disabled people,” especially those who are a part of the disability community. Some deem this wording to be offensive, as it seems to place a person’s disability before their own personhood. But I use the language “disabled people” very intentionally: I use it to argue that people are disabled by society’s barriers, rather than by their own conditions.

People are Disabled by Society’s Inaccessibility

The disability community faces accessibility barriers on a daily basis. People in the disability community often face stigma, barriers to employment, and physical inaccessibility in public settings, making day-to-day life difficult to navigate. I believe that the disability community faces barriers to access not because of their conditions, but because society has failed to accommodate those with different abilities and health conditions.

If society was fully accessible, the disability community wouldn’t face barriers to access. People wouldn’t be disabled by society if society was built to accommodate everyone, regardless of health or mobility status. This is why I use the term “disabled people”: people are disabled by society, not themselves. The concept of using the term “disabled people” to argue that society is what disables individuals, and not their own health conditions, is not new. Many disability scholars and activists have been using this language for decades.

So, How Do I Properly Refer to People in the Disability Community?

While some disability scholars may prefer “disabled person” over person-first language, this doesn’t mean that “disabled people” is the only correct way to refer to the disability community. No term is superior to another, and everyone has their own preferences as to how they would like to be addressed.

When addressing someone in the disability community, the best thing you can do is ask what language they prefer. It’s always important to take into account people’s personal preferences regarding wording, and it’s even more important not to discourage others who don’t share the same preferences as you. Whether you refer to yourself as a “person with a disability” or a “disabled person,” we are all a part of the same community.