Person-Centered vs. Disability-Centered

Aug 07, 2013
Tagged with: Person-Centered vs. Disability-Centered

A professional that I highly respect recently used the phrase ‘dysfunction’ to describe my walking issues.  When I hear terms like ‘dysfunction’, I start to think in boxes:

Disability Centered—Focuses on deficits and labels Person-Centered—Focuses on capabilities and strengths

A Disability-Centered perspective and approach categorizes and classifies based upon deficits.    A Person-Centered perspective and approach promotes the strengths and capabilities of an individual.  Language can be the conduit between a Person-Centered perspective and a Disability-Centered perspective.

Recently I re-read one of my favorite articles called “How are your Person First Skills?” by Carol Russell.  The article details Person-First Philosophy and practice.  Person-First is a concept and approach which promotes diversity through the active use of language.  In the context of language, Person-First means using words which recognize a person first -in the circumstance of disability – and puts the ideas of ‘impairment’ and diagnosis second.[i]

The Health, Medical, Fitness, and Wellness fields have an ongoing and recurring debate about disability frameworks and terminology.  In the context of academics and research, the way that I move is classified by terms like ‘impairment’ and ‘dysfunction’.   When I looked up the word ‘dysfunction’, the definition listed was “abnormal function”.  Similarly, the definition of the word ‘impairment’ was “causing to diminish, as in strength, value, or quality.”

Language is powerful and can label.  Research by Fraser and Gallop (1993) concludes that “labeling or a diagnosis alone tends to influence people’s perceptions”.   The language we use and our word choices related to disabilities have the power to change perceptions or can reinforce stereotypes.

A few years ago, I studied the origin of the term ‘Handicapped’ and had the basis of the concept confirmed once more by Carol Russell’s article.  The origin ‘Handicapped’ is “from an Old English bartering game, wherein the loser was left with his ‘hand in his cap’[ii]. Carol Russell concludes the reference to ‘handicapped’ supports a long-standing stereotype of people with disabilities begging, with a “cap in hand”.[iii]

One of the hallmarks of Person-First Philosophy and practice is to refer to a person first, using words like ‘person with a disability’ compared to ‘The Disabled’ or ‘Handicapped’. Carol Russell and others point out that Disability-Centered terms, like ‘handicapped’, are antiquated and yet the words are still being used.

Words like ‘dysfunction’, ‘impairment’, ‘handicapped’ and many others create a mindset of difference and separateness – people with disabilities versus people without disabilities.

There have been multiple articles written which encourage the Health, Medical, Fitness, and Wellness fields and the professionals within them to move away from a Disability-Centered perspective and approach.

The alternative is one which instead frames disability in the context of diversity using language, terms, and approaches which embrace the individual, their culture, and beliefs.  I advocate for Person-Centered versus Disability Centered because Person-Centered actions and approaches equalize versus separate and focus on strengths versus diminishing people with disabilities.

The question that I grapple with every day is how do individuals with disabilities and professionals concretely move away from a Disability-Centered mindset to a Person-Centered mind-set?  The question that Carol Russell poses, “How are your Person First Skills?” is one that I also ask, with the following insertion – “How are your Person-Centered Skills?”




[i] Russell, C. L. (2008). How Are Your Person First Skills?. Teaching Exceptional Children, 40(5), 40-43.

[ii] Russell, C. L. (2008). How Are Your Person First Skills?. Teaching Exceptional Children, 40(5), 40-43.

[iii] Russell, C. L. (2008). How Are Your Person First Skills?. Teaching Exceptional Children, 40(5), 40-43.

Author: Kerry

  • Lucy

    I support positive language and person-centredness, however this business of politically correct language is ridiculous! Just because a word like handicapped is archaic in meaning does not mean that people know that meaning (you too had to look it up!) or use it in a derogatory context. Words evolve, meanings change and perhaps it’s time not to be so precious about it. After all…we all know that not all gay people are actually happy all the time.

  • Kerry Wiley

    August 8, 2013


    I appreciate your comments. I wrote the blog to get people to think!

    Kerry A. Wiley (Author)

  • Judy

    While I do think that words evolve and meanings change overtime, I do not necessarily believe that politically correct language is ridiculous. Words can have different interpretations and meaning to readers and listeners. They can divide and separate people and they can unite Words are powerful, powerful enough for us to be thoughtful about their intent and purpose and impact on others. Kerry’s last sentence is very thought provoking – people with versus people without – fill in the blank – topics are endless.
    I am not sure that I think Person-Centered as a concept should be defined as an issue of diversity, but rather a universal concept to encourage and promote capabilities and strengths in all of us, regardless of our culture, beliefs, and individual situation.
    As always a thought provoking article.

  • Kerry Wiley

    Thank you for your thoughtful perspective.

    Kerry A. Wiley

  • bobl07

    To take it a little further, the bad rap with political correct language (PCL), is that it can be viewed as a mandate. Rather, PCL should be viewed as an opportunity to share our differences. PCL should not be seen as an opportunity to condemn and to judge. Once we see it as another opportunity to share and unite, then hopefully we can embrace PCL in a positive nature. I see Kerry’s Person-Centered concept as another positive opportunity to share. Instead of viewing it as another mandate, view it as another opportunity to express differences in a positive way. Person-Centered concept is a bridge that can bring a positive spin to diversity Thank you for everyone’s input and perspective.