The PC Dance

Jan 15, 2013
The PC Dance

I think this post will require a little bit of background information about me.  For the last four years I have been in graduate school studying physical activity and people with disabilities. Now, I remember when I started graduate school learning terms like “person-first language” and found myself being much more aware of how I address and talk about people with disabilities. For instance, my friend who has spina bifida is not “in a wheelchair” she “uses a wheelchair”. The guy at the grocery store who bags my groceries has an intellectual disability, he’s not mentally retarded. Recently my new favorite is that parking spaces and seats in the theater are not “handicapped” they are “accessible.”

Now here’s why I’m blogging about this. I don’t have a disability, so I don’t know how it feels to have someone say that a person with a spinal cord injury is “confined to a wheelchair” versus “uses a wheelchair.” Many of the wheelchair athletes I work with freely refer to me as “an AB” (able-bodied person) and to each other as “quads” or “paras” and sometimes when I know somebody well enough I’ll say “he’s a quad” as a quick description, but really I don’t know what’s correct and if I’m offending anyone, since I certainly don’t mean to.

Here’s why I think this question is worth pondering. I’m not one to raise conflict most of the time, and really unless somebody says something that is very offensive about or to a person with a disability, I don’t usually correct someone who says that a patient is “confined to a wheelchair” when really they “use a wheelchair” but I wonder if I should. Especially when I’m listening to presentations by prominent physicians (who I think should know better, really).

What do you think? If you have a disability, how do you feel when someone says something that’s not person-first language or politically correct?

I’d like to have your input! Let’s start the conversation!






Here are some links to first person language:






Author: Susan Silverman

  • Kerry Wiley

    As a professional and a person with a disability, I believe we have a pressing responsibility to promote education about disabilities and the use of person first language. I have walking issues. I am not a category. I worry about the use of categorical terms like “the disabled”. In the case of Spastic Cerebral Palsy, the range, severity, and impact can be quite difference for people with the diagnosis. Cerebral Palsy is a medical diagnosis.

    When we use categorical terms, we place people in a box.
    Not everyone will fit the categorical box. When we use terms
    like “the disabled” in my view, we allow the disability to take precedence over the individual. Respectful language can pave the way for respectful attitudes and behaviors. Personfirst language and philosophy can plant the seeds toward practices that are culturally competent, respectful, and person-centered for Doctors, Nurses,Social Workers, etc. as well as for people with disabilities.

    From the point of view of a person living with Cerebral Palsy, when we use terms like “the disabled”, it diminishes me and makes my walking issues the focus as a problem compared to a natural state. The concept of diversity and cultural competence is really what person first language and philosophy are intended to reflect.
    Thank you for raising this important question and issue!