Talking About Accessibility

People First Language

In the work of inclusion, language is always evolving. Sometimes it's confusing to know the best type of language used to support the ideas of inclusion when talking about people with disabilities. Many of us have found ourselves in a place where we’ve used a word or a term that we’ve said and heard our whole lives, only to be told that it is offensive or upsetting. It’s important that we are all patient with ourselves and with others as we learn how to talk about potentially sensitive topics.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines an individual with a disability as "a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment". A respectful way to talk about people with disabilities is to use people first language. For example, instead of saying "disabled" or "handicapped", use the term "person with a disability". Or, instead of saying "wheelchair bound", say a "person who uses a wheelchair". Using people first language emphasizes the person as a human being and eliminates generalizations and stereotyping that stem from medical terms.

The Accessibility Network supports using people first language when talking about individuals with disabilities. We’d like to challenge you to think about helping people with a range of abilities. Not everyone we might think of as having a disability thinks of themselves the same way. For example, there are many of us who benefit from a simple form of assistive technology. Do you use glasses? Have you ever broken your leg and used crutches? These are just two common types of assistive technology used by people that, if absent, would severely impact the ability to engage in daily activities.

Frequently Used Terms and Phrases

Following are some of terms and phrases associated with electronic accessibility:

  • Accessible: When a person with a disability is afforded the opportunity to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as a person without a disability in an equally effective and equally integrated manner, with substantially equivalent ease of use. [A clear standard. (2013, July 23). Retrieved from]
  • Electronic and Information Technology (EIT): Websites, online learning, technology resources, software, applications, and services used by the university to make information and content available to faculty, staff, students, prospective students, guests, and visitors. EIT Accessibility, or eAccessibility, refers to the accessibility of EIT. [Section 508 Standards for Electronic and Information Technology. (2000, December 21). Retrieved from:]
  • People First Language: A way to put the person before the disability. For example, instead of saying, “disabled” or “handicapped”, say, “a person with a disability”. Instead of saying “wheelchair bound”, say, “a person who uses a wheelchair”. [What is people first language? (2016). Retrieved from:]
  • Universal Design: the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability. [What is UDL? (2014, July 31). Retrieved from:]
  • WCAG – Web Content Accessibility Guidelines: A stable, referenceable technical standard with 12 guidelines and testable success criteria for the accessibility of websites and online materials. The WCAG 2.0 AA standards are the criteria that the university has chosen to aim for in the creation and maintenance of our online content. [Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) Overview. (2017, March 10). Retrieved from:]

As you begin your journey to learn more about eAccessibility, we encourage you to use this page as a reference point. And remember, small steps are the best way to learn and avoid becoming overwhelmed. 

Written for the Accessibility Network by the Interim EIT Coordinator and Director in Student Affairs, Heidi Pettyjohn.

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