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Change Attitudes

Words Shape Attitudes – People First Language

The words that people use can help all individuals to lead more complete and enriching lives.  Words can also create barriers and reinforce stereotypes.  The primary goal of this statement is to ensure that correct language is used when talking, or writing, about individuals with Down syndrome.

Words can create barriers.  Try to recognize that a child is “a child with Down syndrome” or that an adult is “an adult with Down syndrome”.  Children with Down syndrome grow into adults with Down syndrome; they do not remain “eternal children”.   Adults enjoy activities and companionship with other adults.

  •  The correct name of this diagnosis is Down syndrome.  There is no apostrophe (Down).  The “s” in syndrome is NOT capitalized (syndrome).
  • An individual with Down syndrome is an individual first and foremost.  The emphasis should be on the person, not the disability.  Down syndrome is just one of the many words that can be used to describe a person. Do NOT say, “That child is a Downs”.   A child with Down syndrome, an adult with Down syndrome, or a person with Down syndrome is a more appropriate way to discuss a person with this condition.
  • Encourage people to use person-first language, i.e. “The person with Down syndrome”, NOT “The Down syndrome person”!  Identify individuals with Down syndrome as an individual, a friend, a student, or a family member.
  • It is important to use the correct terminology.  A person has an intellectual disability, rather than “suffers from”, “is a victim of”, “is diseased with”, or “is afflicted by”.  A person with Down syndrome is NOT “a Downs”.
  • Ask yourself if using the words “poor”, “pitiful”, or “unfortunate” when referring to an individual with Down syndrome is in his/her best interest.
  • Each person has his/her own unique strengths, capabilities and talents.  Try not to use the clichés that are so common when describing an individual with Down syndrome.  To assume all people have the same characteristics or abilities is degrading.  Also, it reinforces the stereotype that “all kids with Down syndrome are the same”.
  • Most important, look at the person as an individual—your child, your family member, your student, your friend.  Proudly acknowledge their individuality and their accomplishment.  Remember, persons with Down syndrome are more alike us than different.  They have feelings too and are hurt by cruelty, stares and name-calling.  They want to be included in your groups, not excluded.

Here are some basic guidelines for using People First Language:

1. Put people first, not their disability
  • A "person with a disability", not a "disabled person"
  • A "child with autism", not an "autistic child"
2. Use emotionally neutral expressions
  • A person "with" cerebral palsy, not "afflicted with" cerebral palsy
  • An individual who had a stroke, not a stroke "victim"
  • A person "has" Down syndrome, not "suffers from" Down syndrome
3. Emphasize abilities, not limitations
  • A person "uses a wheelchair", not "wheelchair-bound"
  • A child "receives special education services", not "in special ed"
4. Adopt preferred language
  • A "cognitive disability" or "intellectual disability" is preferred over "mentally retarded"
  • "Typically developing" or "typical" is preferred over "normal"
  • "Accessible" parking space or hotel room is preferred over "handicapped"


Bust Myths

Myth:   People with Down syndrome are severely mentally impaired.

Truth: Most people with Down syndrome have IQs that fall in the mild to moderate range of retardation. Children with Down syndrome are definitely educable and educators and researchers are still discovering the full educational potential of people with Down syndrome.


Myth:   People with Down syndrome lead isolated lives.

Truth: Today people with Down syndrome live at home with their families and are active participants in the educational, vocational, social and recreational activities of the community. They are integrated into the regular education system, and take part in sports, camping, music, art programs and all the other activities of their communities. In addition, they are socializing with people with and without disabilities, and as adults are obtaining employment and living in group homes and other independent housing arrangements.


Myth:   Children with Down syndrome must be placed in segregated special education programs.

Truth:  Children with Down syndrome have been included in regular academic classrooms in schools across the country. In some instances they are integrated into specific courses, while in other situations students are fully included in the regular for all subjects. The degree of mainstreaming is based in the abilities of the individual; but the trend is for full inclusion in the social and educational life of the community.


Myth:   Adults with Down syndrome are unemployable.

Truth:  Businesses are seeking young adults with Down syndrome for a variety of positions. They are being employed in small and medium sized offices: by banks, corporations, nursing homes, hotels and restaurants. They work in the music and entertainment industry, in clerical positions and in the computer industry. People with Down syndrome bring to their jobs enthusiasm, reliability and dedication.


Myth:    Individuals with Down syndrome are always happy.

Truth:  Persons with Down syndrome have feelings just like everyone else.  They respond to positive expressions of friendship and freely express their love.  Their feelings can be hurt by inconsiderate attitudes or remarks and insulting behavior can cause them to become upset.


Myth:   Adults with Down syndrome are unable to form close interpersonal relationships.

Truth: Persons with Down syndrome date, socialize and form on-going relationships.  Some are beginning to marry.  Women with Down syndrome can and do have children, but there is a 50% chance that their child will have Down syndrome.  Males with Down syndrome are generally considered to be sterile, but there is one documented instance of a man with Down syndrome who fathered a child.



Myth:   Down syndrome is untreatable.

Truth:  Through early intervention, speech therapy, physical therapy, and occupational therapy, it is possible to improve many of the problems associated with Down syndrome.  In addition, research in Down syndrome is making great strides in identifying the genes on chromosome 21 that affect this disorder.  Scientists now feel strongly that it will be possible to improve, correct, or prevent many of the problems associated with Down syndrome in the future. 


Sources for this article were publications from the National Down Syndrome Society.


The Down Syndrome Association of West Michigan is an affiliate of:
National Down Syndrome CongressDown Syndrome Affiliates in Action