It was my second day as a Principal (ever), I sat in the district-wide administrative team meeting sitting next to the Director of Student Services.  I made a comment to her about how I had a special place in my heart for “sped students” and how happy I was that I would be working so closely with her throughout the year as my building would house 2 of her programs for the upcoming year.  She immediately stopped me, and stated we use “Student First Language” in our district, they are not ‘sped students’, but rather “students in the special education program.” My heart immediately sank, I had offended her and probably hundreds of parents and students throughout my career and yet I still didn’t know what “Student First Language was.” I had been in education for over 10 years and had never heard of “Student First Language”, clearly it was time to do some research….

Originally, Public Law 94-142, passed in 1975, was titled the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. However, in 1990 Public Law 101-476 amended the title to Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). It was here in 1990, where it was stated we should use person-first language.  “At its core, person-first language seeks to acknowledge the inherent and equal value of every individual, before attaching any other descriptors or identities the person may view as secondary or not intrinsic. Communicating using person-first language begins with empathy.”   Foley, Michelle. “Getting Started With Person-First Language.” Edutopia, George Lucas Educational Foundation, 20 July 2018, 

We must acknowledge that students with disabilities are students first, not their disability. Student First Language recognizes that ALL people have many different characteristics, skills, strengths, challenges and interests, having a disability should not define who you are or the way you are viewed by others. Here are a few examples of Student First Language:

Student First Language NOT Student First Language
She has a diagnosis of autism. She’s autistic.
He has a learning disability. He’s learning disabled or He’s LD
She receives special ed services. She’s in special ed.
He has a developmental delay He’s developmentally delayed or He’s DD
Accessible parking, hotel room, etc. Handicapped parking, hotel room, etc
Billy has ADHD. Billy’s ADHD.
Christina has diabetes. Christina is diabetic.

“Special Education / Person First Language.” / Person First Language, Accessed 3 Sept. 2019.

Having been out of a building now for 3 years, I would have thought that student-first language is common knowledge, to my surprise I am constantly hearing colleagues and participants of many workshops, coaching cycles, etc. NOT using Student First Language when referring to their students thus why I was inspired to write this blog .  Yes, it takes practice at first being mindful to change your vernacular, but like anything, once you do you will never go back. 

“Many disability advocates believe that using person-first language helps teachers, therapists, parents, and service providers remember they are working with a person who has dignity, feelings, and rights. They are not a disability or a disease. They are people with a disability or disease. This shift is subtle but powerful.” Logsdon, Ann. “Why Person-First Language Is Used to Talk About Disabilities.” Verywell Family, Verywell Family, 22 July 2019, Accessed 3 Sept. 2019.

Be the spark that ignites change within your building and district….bring up the idea of Student First Language with your colleagues, at a faculty meeting, with your building/district admin. Lets change the way we reference and talk about students and let’s start with an empathetic approach.

 If you need more information or would like to discuss Student First Language more, please don’t hesitate to contact me at any time!


Katie Algrim – Director of Innovative Professional Learning

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