Thoughts on Person First Language

According to Wikipedia, “Person First Language is a form of politically correct linguistic prescriptivism aiming to avoid perceived and subconscious dehumanization when discussing people with disabilities. The basic idea is to replace, e.g., ‘disabled people’ with ‘people with disabilities’, ‘deaf people’ with ‘people who are deaf’ or ‘individuals who are deaf’, etc., thus emphasizing that they are people first (hence the concept's name) and the disability second. Further, the concept favors the use of ‘having’ rather than ‘being’, e.g. ‘she has a learning disability’ instead of ‘she is learning-disabled, an example of E-Prime language avoiding the verb to be.” We have this definition to refer to individuals with disabilities, but why? Especially when there are those out there that do not like being referred to in person first language (See Jim Sinclair’s memo, “Why I Dislike Person First Language.”)

We have to respect what Jim Sinclair says, and at the same time, we have to speak to the general public.

At The Arcadia Institute, we often do an exercise with summer program and camp staff where we ask them to share beliefs or stereotypes that they might have been labeled with at some point. An example might be the guy who was labeled a “dumb jock.” While there are some positive attitudes and beliefs about being athletic, often we make assumptions about that person’s abilities and personality based on the label we have given them. That can be limiting and frustrating for a person.

I believe that the heart of Person First Language is about attitudes and respect. When we break down the barriers of stereotypes and beliefs, we see the PERSON FIRST. We don’t see someone with Autism or Down’s Syndrome, we see an individual who is creative or funny or kind. We all want to be known as someone with a variety of characteristics, experiences and traits that make us unique individuals. People with disabilities are no different.