Person-first Language is a form of speaking and writing that puts the person before their disability or diagnosis. It provides the understanding that they are multifaceted and that their diagnosis or disability is just one aspect of them that contributes to their identity.
Person-first language, also referred to as people-first language, is about dignity and respect for all individuals. This type of language promotes an understanding of what a person can do and allows for the person to be seen as more than their disability or diagnosis. It encourages a positive and empowering society that openly understands that people with disabilities are capable, independent, and motivated by many of the same factors as people without disabilities.
During transition conferences with the public schools, I prompt parents to tell about their child and I also add any additional information. During this time, I may say something like “Jack has a diagnosis of Down Syndrome” and then we go on to discuss the child’s strengths, personality, and areas where the family may like to see growth. Person-first Language really is a strengths-based approach and the paradigm around how our services are provided. We do not come from a place of limitations or expectations. We come from a place of strength, ability, and what their child brings to the world. Person-first Language does not just benefit the people who live with diagnoses or disabilities, it really paves the way to create a more understanding world.
When we lead with language like this it opens the door to see the individual for who they are. The little nuances that make them, them. Using this language in practice, I can see parents’ faces light up being able to describe their child to the teachers in a holistic way that encompasses ALL that they are, not just this one, minute aspect of their identity.
Language is a powerful tool that provides a lens or template for how we view the world and how we view ourselves. When we use a person-first language, we are initiating dialogue that demonstrates the understanding that people with disabilities have the same desires and will to be independent and autonomous. Person-first language does not only help on the individual level, it has the potential to shape the way laws are written and encourages full-accessibility for all.
Person-first language has the power to shape a culture which allows for people of all abilities to be active participants in every area of society.
When referring to a person with a disability, refer to the person first. Say something like “individual with a vision impairment” rather than “deaf person”. The goal is to focus on what the person is capable of and to avoid false implications that the person is not capable or is lacking abilities. Just like people without disabilities, people with disabilities are extraordinarily varied in their levels of ability and desires for themselves. This type of language avoids stereotypes and promotes respect for the person first and foremost. It also teaches children, teens, and adults with disabilities to respect themselves and to never feel limited in their abilities. It is important to respect this individuality and denounce stereotypes by using person-first language.
By Alison Stramel, Social Worker