• Hannah Gallagher

What if I say the wrong thing?

If you don't know what to say, do some research first, then ask a friend.

Over the last two years the PlayGarden has been hosting inclusion workshops for youth-care providers across King County. Every time we host a workshop, we are asked about the same topic: language use and disability.

Some of the common questions we get asked:

  • What is the appropriate language to use when communicating about disability and inclusion?

  • How can I talk to kids and families in our programs while being respectful?

  • What words should we use to refer to people with disabilities?

  • Is saying "the disabled" or "disabled people" acceptable, for example?

  • How can I talk to kids about disability?

Along with these questions, we are also told about people's fears….

  • I am worried I will offend someone.

  • I am worried I will use outdated language. What do you do when a kid says something inappropriate?

It is only logical that these questions are often some of the first we get asked when leading a workshop. Many people feel uncomfortable talking about disability and feel equally uncomfortable talking with parents of children with disabilities. No one wants to say the wrong thing.

However, one of the things that we heard over and over again from children with disabilities and their parents during our focus groups was the most hurtful thing that happens to them and their children is being ignored completely.

“I would rather someone use kind of the wrong language so long as they are trying to be respectful, then ignore me because they are scared they might say the wrong thing."

- Annie Jones, 18-year-old summer camp counselor at the PlayGarden

We need to shift from fear-based interactions and communication to interactions based on genuine and authentic curiosity about one another. As disability rights advocates, we can all take time to educate ourselves around appropriate language use, not only so that we have language to use when talking with or about a person(s) with a disability but that we have POSITIVE language to be using.

So, where do we start? We recognize that EVERY person is unique and has their own unique way they like to be described. As a general guideline, the following two formats are a good place to start.

Person-First Language puts the individual’s personhood first and their disability is presented as one element of their identity such as, “a person with a disability” or “a child with Autism.”


Identity-First Language puts a person’s disability first in the phrase, as it is

considered a core element of who the person is. For example, “a disabled person” or “an

Autistic person.”

Always use: Positive language

The National Youth Advocate Network and the Kids As Self Advocates agree. They say, use the term “disability,” and take the following terms out of your vocabulary when talking about or talking to people with disabilities. Don’t use the terms “handicapped,” “differently-abled,” “cripple,” “crippled,” “victim,” “retarded,” “stricken,” “poor,” “unfortunate,” or “special needs” as these terms frame disability as a negative thing and thus further perpetuate the exclusion, isolation and negative stigma of people with disabilities.

Respect self-identification

Not every person with a disability wants to be identified in one of these ways or even uses the term “disability.” Children and adults alike, self-identify in many ways.

When speaking with or about someone with a disability, follow these six simple things first….

  1. Educate yourself and teach others about appropriate language use.

  2. Speak to others the way you want to be spoken to.

  3. Refer to a disability only when it’s relevant to the story or the experience at hand.

  4. Listen closely for how a person self-identifies and use that language.

  5. When in doubt, the wisest and kindest choice is simply to ask people about their preferences.

  6. Have conversations with your kids or the kids you serve about how to respectfully talk about differences, ask questions, share their observations, and express their curiosity about the world and people around them. Kids are eager to learn and are looking for guidance on what language to use.

Check out the following resource to learn more:

'Disabled': Just #SayTheWord written by Barbara J. King at NPR this is an interesting article on the premises for the #SayTheWord campaign created by Lawrence Carter-Long.

Respectful Disability Language: Here’s What’s Up!

This is a great resource written by youth with disabilities from the National Youth Leadership Network and Kids As Self- Advocates that lists specifically terms and phrases that are appropriate to use when talking about disability.

Choosing Words for Talking about Disability by the American Psychological Association

People First Language by Kathie Snow.

Identity First Language by Lydia Brown from the Autistic Self Advocacy Network

Disability Language Style Guide by National Center on Disability and Journalism

Disability Etiquette Tips by Ability360 Phoenix.

These resources are included here as places to start your reading on language use.

Stay tuned for next week's blog: How to talk to kids about disability

About the Author: Hannah Gallagher is the Inclusive Programs Director at the Seattle Children's PlayGarden. She has been leading fully-inclusive nature-play based programming for children and adults with and without disabilities for 15 years.

1745 24th Avenue South, Seattle, WA 98144

Getting to the Seattle Children's PlayGarden   |   206 325 5576   |   info@childrensplaygarden.org


The PlayGarden's mission is to provide children of all abilities a safe, accessible and adventurous place to play.

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