by Stephanie Hauer
Using person-first language in conversations around disabilities and mental illnesses dignifies the individuals by focusing on the whole person, not just a single aspect of their existence. This tiny shift in speech makes a big impact because it signifies that you care about the person being discussed. It shows that you view them as a valuable human being who has unique experiences, rather than seeing just a diagnosis with a checklist of symptoms.
What is Person-First Language?
Person-first language is when you rearrange the word order to put the name of the condition after the person. It sounds like “a girl with schizophrenia,” or “a person with EHS.” It does not sound like “a Down syndrome kid” or a “bulimic man.”
How is that any different?
In the first set of examples, the emphasis is on the whole person, and the condition is almost an afterthought. In the second set, the emphasis is on the condition, which makes it the most important thing, rather than just a part of the person.
Why Is It Important?
Niagara University First Responders’ training says it well: “The use of negative words can create incorrect perceptions of people with disabilities. Such negative attitudes are often the most difficult barriers for people with disabilities to overcome.” (1) It may not seem like much, but little shifts in how we talk about disabilities can start to shift our attitudes and philosophies. Person-first language can help a person feel like they are not invisible and it helps people who do not have any disabilities or mental illnesses to break down barriers and realize commonalities with people who do. This leads to a greater sense of empathy, sonder, and concern. If people who do not have disabilities think of people with conditions as full people, they are more likely to become allies and advocates. It creates a sense of common interest, and paves the way for inclusive communities that provide for the diverse needs of all people. Person-first language breaks down the categories of “us vs. them.” It creates a “we.”
As Mental Health America says, “The use of language is critical to ensuring a recovery-oriented and person-centered approach. It is important that people are seen first as people and not seen as their mental health condition. People are not Schizophrenic, Bipolar, or Borderline. People are not cases or illnesses to be managed… It means focusing on the person's strengths and the choices they want for their lives - not just their symptoms....” (2)
See how the simple act of rearranging some words can restore the dignity of so many vulnerable humans? As pro-life people, we seek to validate the humanity of each person in every stage and state of life. When such an easy switch can create such a positive cascade of effects, it’s an obvious choice for anyone to train themselves to do.
While person-first language serves as an excellent default, we must also maintain flexibility. People have the right to their preferences, and they may prefer not to use person-first language. The alternative is identity-first language, which some people feel drawn to because they consider their conditions to be an inherent part of who they are, and not something that needs to be downplayed or erased.
Cara Liebowitz has cerebral palsy, and prefers to refer to herself as a disabled person. “My disability, among many other things, is integrated into who I am. There is no way to separate me from my disability. It’s not as if ‘person’ is a standard action figure, while ‘disability’ comes in the accessory pack designed to make you spend more money. That’s the image that comes to mind when I hear person with a disability.” (3)
The important thing to remember is to listen to people with disabilities themselves. Everyone deserves autonomy over their own identity, and it’s always best to respect their choices. Person-first language is a great place to start, but if an individual prefers identity-first language, then you should oblige their choice. If you’re ever not sure what the person wants, just ask politely! Know that it is okay to mess up sometimes, because it is difficult to totally change your language habits overnight. The key is to be sincere and willing to apologize if you accidentally offend anyone.
(1) Houle, Andrew, and Niagara University. "Disability Etiquette & Person First Language." First Responders Disability Awareness Training. Accessed October 24, 2018. https://frdat.niagara.edu/support-resources/disability-info/disability-etiquette-people-first-language/.
(2) "Person-Centered Language." Mental Health America. April 24, 2018. Accessed October 24, 2018. http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/person-centered-language.
(3) Liebowitz, Cara. "I Am Disabled: On Identity-First Versus People-First Language." The Body Is Not An Apology. March 12, 2015. Accessed October 24, 2018. https://thebodyisnotanapology.com/magazine/i-am-disabled-on-identity-first-versus-people-first-language/.