People-First Language: What is It and How Should We Implement It?

While writing the prospectus for my recent Master’s thesis, was the first time I learned of people-first language. How could I be writing a thesis on disabilities and not have known about this? How is it that I was so clueless on the topic? I had been using phrases like, “the disabled characters” or “because the character is autistic.” I was politely informed by one of my committee members that I would have to go back and rephrase the way I addressed the characters I was writing about using person-first language.

People-first languages’ premise is simple: put the person before the disability, however, it is not only addressing the person first, it’s about using more polite phrasing that dispels negative stereotypes and not using a person’s disability to define their character. This is not to say we should pretend a person doesn’t have a disability, but it is a form of respect to the individual where they are not introduced based on their disabilities but by who they are despite their disabilities.

So what is the difference between person-first language and not person-first language? Here are some examples:

Person-First Language Not Person-First Language
The person with a disability The disabled person
Johnny has a physical disabilityJohnny is crippled
She uses a wheelchairShe is wheelchair bound

It’s a little more politically correct and may seem a roundabout way to introduce, or talk about those with disabilities, but it is a simple change we can all make. Maybe this isn’t a big deal to you. “So what?” you think, “Who cares?” Well, maybe you don’t care, but perhaps the people you are talking to or about do. Person-first language also reinforces certain etiquette that we all should abide by. Just as we would not use racial slurs to describe a person of color, we shouldn’t use outdated phrases like retard, crippled, or handicapped to refer to a person with a disability. According to the Texas Council for Developmental Disabilities, people are not handicapped, rather the word handicap should be used to refer to barriers created by people or the environment.

So, instead of saying something like:

The person in the wheelchair is handicapped.

You could say:

The person who uses a wheelchair is handicapped by stairs.

See the difference? The word handicap refers to the stairs not to the person.

Archaic language like this along with phrases like “suffers from,” “is a victim of,” and “is afflicted with,” evoke pity and make the disability out to be viewed as a problem. Disability is not a problem and it is quite ordinary to those who have them. People are much more than their diagnoses. Would you want to be defined by your medical history? Probably not. A person’s disability does not determine their potential and it’s time we change our perspectives and stop focusing on the limitations that people with disabilities may encounter.

Instead of saying something like, “Johnny can’t walk,” we can instead say, “Johnny uses a wheelchair.” Or instead of saying, “Sally doesn’t speak,” we can say, “Sally communicates using sign language.” See how one focuses on what can’t be done and how the other focuses on what can be done? Simple changes can make a huge difference.

This post is not to fault anyone who doesn’t use people-first language or shame them. You can’t know what you don’t know. All we can do is put in more effort once we have been made aware. I too have had to take a hard look at my own use or lack thereof of person-first language. Proper etiquette tells us not to use “cutesy” phrases which I am guilty of. I occasionally refer to my brother as a “downsie” and I changed the name of my blog from Differently Abled to Sense and Disability for this sole reason (although I think Sense and Disability is a way more fun name). So, I am definitely not the person to judge the way others choose to speak. All I can do now is learn from my past mistakes and move forward and perhaps whoever reads this can learn from my mistakes as well.

Perhaps next time you, me, or any of us encounter a person with a disability, we will be a little more aware of how we address and speak to them and about them. Given the circumstances of the world today, we can all afford to be a little kinder towards others, especially those who are a little different from us.

Citations

“People-First Language.” Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion, askearn.org/topics/retention-advancement/disability-etiquette/people-first-language/.

“People First Language.” Texas Council for Developmental Disabilities, 15 May 2019, tcdd.texas.gov/resources/people-first-language/.

Person-First-Language-Article_Kathie_Snow.Pdf.