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Disability Workshop for Adults: Negotiating the Minefield of Language
Disability Workshop for Adults: Negotiating the Minefield of Language
Disability & Accessibility

Workshop Overview


Suggested for all congregants.


People with disabilities frequently encounter language that robs them of their humanity. People with invisible and visible disabilities receive the social message that their existence is bad when people use terms for disability in a pejorative manner. This workshop seeks to raise participants’ awareness and encourage more thoughtful language choices.

There is no consensus across disabilities on a single standard for preferred language. Most allies and some disability constituencies have embraced People First language, but there are cogent reasons why some communities and individuals with disabilities have not. This workshop encourages allies to adopt People First language generally, and to pay attention to how people self-identify. It also holds up the discomfort allies feel about the lack of a “right” answer.

Goals and Learning Objectives

  • To raise group consciousness regarding pejorative and dehumanizing language.
  • To develop a willingness to be uncomfortable.
  • To foster familiarity with the debate over People First language.
  • To understand that not everyone agrees on choice of language.
  • To foster familiarity with the concept of respecting self-identification.

Materials, Handouts, and Videos

You will need a chalice, and a flipchart and markers or other way to post for the group.

Parts of this workshop are designed for journaling. Provide paper for participants. Also, provide a journaling alternative—a quiet space where someone may dictate if they have their own technology or to dictate in confidence to a facilitator, for example.

Make copies of the following handouts for participants:

Optional: Prepare equipment for showing the following videos from the Internet:


  • Review
  • Read the workshop plan and explore the suggested readings. Decide how you might want to alter or augment the workshop.
  • Decide if you wish to use the video “Not Acceptable.” The video is very powerful and intentionally uses racist and heterosexist language.
  • For Activity 1, print copies of the Handout from the website using the link. Decide who will read it aloud.
  • For Activity 4, if possible arrange for equipment to show the video “Would You Call My Child a Retard?” If not possible, make copies of the handout from the website using the link.
  • Prepare yourself for discomfort in the room, and perhaps in yourself.
  • Review resources on the debate over People First language.
  • Prepare yourself for frustration in the room with no “right” answers.
  • Review resources on pejorative language and select examples.
  • Post the prompts for the activities on newsprint or slides.
  • You may want to make a handout of additional resources for people who want to do some independent reading after the workshop, and/or email additional resources to interested participants. See the list of additional resources at the end of this workshop’s description.

Spiritual Preparation

Set aside time for journaling, reflection, or other form of contemplation, using these focus questions:

  • Reflect on your own experiences of being misunderstood. What feelings were triggered? How do you respond to the person who misunderstood you? How do you respond to yourself?
  • Some participants may be frustrated that there is no definitive set of acceptable words. Consider how you feel when you do not feel in control in a situation. What feelings do you experience? How do you behave? Do what you can to prepare so that you can help people encounter their own frustration.
  • Consider when you have experienced micro-aggression, and pejorative language in particular. How do you respond when you hear language that demeans you? Someone else? How do you respond when you realize you have used pejorative language?
  • There may be varying levels of experience and comfort talking about identity, stereotypes, and micro-aggression among the participants. Do what you can to prepare so that you can allow discomfort in the room.

Extending the Conversation

Read the Handout: Extending the Conversation (PDF).

The topics in the workshop intersect with all areas of congregational involvement. Consider asking the Committee on Shared Ministry or the Right Relations Team to attend and participate. In addition to the groups’ observations, consider using some of the following questions to fuel conversation and/or create your own:

  • What processes are in place in our congregation that we use when situations of micro-aggression arise? How widely known are these mechanisms? What results have we had?
  • What might becoming a Disability/Ability Action Certified Congregation mean for our congregation?
  • What calls us to do this work?
  • Was there something that came up in the workshop that made you uncomfortable? That you thought might make “someone” uncomfortable? What does it mean for us as a congregation to embrace discomfort?

Workshop Plan

Welcoming and Entering

Chalice Lighting

We kindle this light in the chalice of our community, that we may honor one another.

Opening Reading

Introduce this workshop with the following reading about how words matter. Explain we will be exploring these ideas in this workshop.

The names that people call us matter. My grandmother and my father have called me, “Mija” for a long time, a Spanish contraction of “mi” and “hija,” “my” and “daughter.” In a way, it means more than daughter because it is a name that they use to mean, “You belong with us.” Other names are less connecting. For example, more than a handful of times, as I prepared to board the bus, the city bus driver spoke to the other passengers and said, “There’s a wheelchair getting on the bus.”

Nothing about being called a wheelchair works for me. I am not a wheelchair. I am a person. I am a person who uses a wheelchair. I have a face and eyes. If you looked at them, you would see quite plainly that even if my body is not typical, I’m still a person. I am not a mobility device, but by picking that out as the most important thing about me, people manage to minimize that I am a person, with all the wonder that includes. You can call me wheelchair, but it’s not my name. I am woman, sister, best friend, sweetheart, teacher, minister, artist, and poet. Will one of those work just as well?

Sometimes using person-first language can seem awkward or overly focused on political correctness. In those moments, as we teach ourselves to use inclusive language, we can focus clearly on the benefit that this language gives. It affirms people for who they are. There is a less obvious but equally important affirmation in the idea that all of us are people; all of us human. The ways we are different from each other are also ways that connect us in that common condition, made of meat and bones. Given those ideas, it doesn’t work for me to be called anything that disrespects my body either—words like crippled, or other words that sound like code for “less” or “broken.” My body isn’t broken. It simply has a disability, the way others have green eyes or have curly hair. Together, we can create shared language that honors the way that disability is part of being human.

—Theresa Ines Soto

Part I: What Should One Say?

You may choose to begin with the video “Not Acceptable.”

Introduce Part I of the workshop with these or similar words:

How we refer to people matters. Recognizing that we want to be affirming of people, what do we do?

Activity 1: Introducing People First language (20 minutes)

Introduce this activity with these or similar words:

As our opening reading suggests, we can choose to use words that emphasize a person’s humanity. One widely used way of doing this is called People First (or Person First) language.

You can recognize People First language because it, literally, puts the word “people” first in referring to someone, and because it frames a disability as something a person has, not who they are. It recognizes someone’s humanity, not their diagnosis.

Distribute the handout “A Few Words About People First Language.” You may choose to read the handout aloud, either reading it yourself or having participants each read a paragraph (remember to make it safe to “pass”). Otherwise, allow time for participants to read the handout silently.

Ask the group how they responded to the article; if they raise something from the examples, let them know that there will be an exercise drawing on the examples. If someone raises Identity First language, ask to put that in the “parking lot” for later and ask that we focus on People First language now.

Ask the participants to turn their attention to the examples listed in the large box on the handout. Ask them to turn to someone sitting near them and respond to the following prompts (allow 5 minutes):

  • What do you notice about these examples?
  • Which ones do you think would be hard or easy for you to get accustomed to using?

Gather the larger group together again. Ask people to share, and record their responses. If questions had arisen in the previous discussion about the examples, check that those issues have been addressed.

Finish this activity using these or similar words:

People First language is widely used by those seeking to use inclusive language. It has been adopted by many cross-disability groups, mobility disability organizations, and intellectual disability organizations. Many health professionals and etiquette guides have adopted People First language. Use of People First language is recommended for allies in most situations.

Activity 2: Introducing the Debate Over People First Language (20 minutes)

Introduce this activity using these or similar words:

There is no monolithic authority that speaks for all people with disabilities and defines what correct syntax is. Nor is there an outside authority to impose a standard form of reference on every person with a disability. It is important to know that People First language is NOT universally accepted in all disability communities or by all people with disabilities.

Some people feel that their disability is an intrinsic part of who they are, and don’t use People First language because it separates the disability from the person and makes it seem as if they were waiting for the disability to go away.

Many people who feel this way use Identity First language, where the disability comes before the word “person” emphasizing the disability as an identity. For example, say “a blind person” rather than “a person who is blind.”

In People First language, disability is considered something people have, not who they are. Those who choose Identity First language consider their disability essential to who they are.

Many people with disabilities, especially (but not solely) in the blind or Deaf communities, prefer Identity First syntax. Parents of children with autism tend to use People First language, while autistic self-advocates tend to use Identity First language.

If Identity First language was raised earlier and put in the “parking lot,” check whether it can be removed from the parking lot.

Allow space for questions or frustrations. If no one raises frustrations, consider acknowledging the possibility with these or similar words:

It’s natural to want to always say the right thing, and it can be frustrating when there is no consensus on what the right thing to say is. You may be misunderstood, despite your best intent.

Post the following prompt for discussion:

  • If there is no single “right” syntax, what do I do?

The facilitator may provide these responses if participants do not:

  • Either is better than dehumanizing language.
  • Allies generally use people-first language.
  • Be aware of your choices. Know why you use what you use.
  • Follow the other person’s cue about what they use for themselves.
  • Resist the temptation to give up.
Part II: Language Hurts

Introduce Part II of the workshop with these or similar words:

There are things that both People First language and Identity First language agree on:

  • Language influences social perception.
  • Dehumanizing language is not OK.

There is a deeply rooted assumption in our culture that disability is bad. Not just different, but bad. Dehumanizing language relies on that assumption. By actively choosing our words, we can reframe the perception of disability.

Activity 3: What’s Wrong with Normal? (20 minutes)

Introduce this activity with these or similar words:

As an example, consider how to refer to people without disabilities. “Able-bodied” is another expression that is often used to contrast with people with disabilities, although it is focused on physical disabilities. “Neuro-typical” is often used by autistic people to refer to people whose minds work more conventionally. “Typical” is becoming increasingly popular to refer to people without disabilities, since it emphasizes that ability is a continuum.

“Temporarily able-bodied” is frequently used by allies who want to remind themselves and others that anyone might become disabled in the future, and affirming commonality. Many people with disabilities experience this expression as minimizing their experience.

“Normal,” even in quotation marks, is common parlance. But it is loaded with dehumanizing messages. Each person experiences their own life as normal. Using “normal” to refer to people without disabilities says that there is something wrong with having disabilities.

Introduce the exercise with these or similar words:

A wheelchair is a tool a person uses to go somewhere they would otherwise not be able to go. Yet the expressions “wheelchair bound” and “confined to a wheelchair” are in common usage. The expressions make assumptions that do not include the lived experience, but do express fear and distaste.

  • Invite the participants to consider phrases commonly used to talk about disabilities: birth defect, affliction, victim, suffers from. Ask them to reflect on what assumptions are made about people’s experience, and about how these phrases shape our perception of the lives of people with disabilities. Invite them to write or draw in their journal; provide a journaling alternative. Allow 10 minutes for reflection and journaling.
Activity 4: Sweating the Small Stuff (30 minutes)

People with disabilities regularly experience subtle, demeaning behaviors and commonplace indignities, both intentional and unintentional. This kind of behavior is called “micro-aggression.” Individually, these are small things, but the incessant hammering dehumanization adds up. When people complain about these things, they are often told they are being “too sensitive.”

Pejorative language is one of the most ubiquitous forms. Many common expressions dismiss something else by comparing it to something we all know is bad, a person with a disability.

If possible, show the video “Would You Call My Child a Retard?” from the resource list, or a similar video. If you can’t show a video, use the handout “Key Messages and Talking Points” from the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign.

Allow for feedback from the video.

Ask the group to give other commonly used expressions that use a disability as a pejorative; supply some if they won’t (lame, crazy, nuts, spaz, freak, moron).

Ask the group why it matters

Introduce the next exercise with these or similar words:

There are things we can do when we encounter pejorative language.

Post the following prompts:

  • Be aware of words for disabilities that are used as pejoratives. (They are so commonly used people forget what they refer to.)
  • Don’t dismiss it (e.g., don’t say: It’s not a big deal; I didn’t mean it like that).
  • When someone does it, don’t ignore it. Say something.

Doing something helps change social perception. And when allies say something, it means that those receiving the put-downs don’t always have to be the educators.

Ask the group to respond to the following prompt and record their responses:

  • What might I do/say when someone uses a term for a disability as a pejorative?

Ask the group to respond to the following prompt and record their responses:

  • What alternate expressions might I encourage?
    • Unpleasant, disappointing, disagreeable, ineffective, misguided, wrong, foolish, etc.

Invite the participants to consider whether they habitually use a term for a disability as a pejorative. Ask them to reflect on how they might break this habit. Invite them to write or draw in their journal; provide a journaling alternative. Allow 10 minutes for reflection and journaling.


Offer participants the opportunity to call out something from today’s discussion that intrigued them or that they are taking home.

Give thanks for the participation, and for the promise that this knowledge has brought to the congregation.

Extinguish the Chalice

We extinguish this light bringing the strength of our shared community into the world with us.

Additional Resources

People First Language and Criticism


Pejorative Language

Being an Ally

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