The Importance of People First Language

The words we use to describe others don’t just reflect how we view them. They also shape our perceptions of the people we’re discussing. That’s why it’s important to be mindful of the language we employ when we talk about people with disabilities. Referring to such individuals with terms like “the disabled” obscures their humanity with their condition. No one is a disability, an injury, or a health condition. They are people. And that’s the guiding principle of People-First Language.

At Foothold Technology, we believe in and always strive to use People-First Language. While some outside the social services community may have no idea what this is or why it’s important, the language we use has a tremendous impact on the lives of many people we encounter day-to-day.

What Is People First Language?

The definition of People-First Language is language that “puts the person before the disability” and “describes what a person has, not who a person is.” Also known as Person-First Language or PFL, it focuses on the central idea that defining a person by name (e.g., Jane) or role (e.g., aunt, sister, friend) and not their disability helps others see potential rather than limitations. A physical, mental, or cognitive diagnosis is something that a person has, but it isn’t who they are. 

The opposite of People-First Language is identity-first language, which describes people on the basis of a diagnosis. This sort of disability-first terminology can be problematic because it emphasizes a medical designation over a person’s humanity. There are instances, though, of individuals with disabilities reclaiming identity-first language by using it positively. Taking control of the designation in this way can be empowering.

Before joining Foothold Technology’s Training Division, I spent over 10 years working with individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. In this role, I was able to educate many people on the importance of looking at people’s unique gifts and possibilities, rather than focusing on disabilities. This mindset begins with the language we use. While this concept isn’t always followed, especially by mainstream media, it has been gaining attention.

The Principles of People-First Language

People-First Language centers on the idea that defining a person by their name or role, and not their diagnosis, helps others to focus on their potential rather than their limitations. With that in mind, People-First Language generally follows a few core principles:

  • Put a person before their disability so that they are not defined by their disability. By identifying an individual with the word “person,” you’re emphasizing their humanity over their disability or illness.
  • Emphasize abilities and talents over limitations. You might say, for example, that a person “walks with crutches” rather than “has a disability.”
  • Avoid negative or patronizing words, such as “victim,” “tragedy,” “afflicted,” and “unfortunate.” These terms don’t match the spirit of People-First Language.
  • Avoid euphemistic neologisms. Many decry terms like “differently abled” as affected and equally as pejorative as the word it’s meant to replace.
  • View any assistive devices as enabling rather than limiting. You might say that a cane allows someone to walk steadily, not that they have to walk with a cane.
  • Recognize that people with disabilities have their own goals and preferences. Language should promote choice and autonomy. 
  • Respect people’s preferences and outlooks. If you know that a person prefers one descriptive term over others, strive to satisfy that preference. 

Examples of People-First Language

Enacting People-First Language involves updating our language. Many terms and phrases we take for granted don’t align with people-first principles. We should be mindful of this and strive to replace them whenever possible. Here are some examples that can help you incorporate inclusiveness into your everyday speech:

  • “Person who has a disability,” instead of “disabled individual.” 
  • “Individual living with a developmental disability,” instead of “developmentally disabled.”
  • “Child with autism,” instead of “autistic child.” 
  • “Person who uses a wheelchair,” instead of “wheelchair-bound.” 

As you can see, converting our existing terminology to People-First Language requires only some rearrangement and extension. Simple adjectives become noun objects, placing the person literally first in the structure of the sentence. Thus, the language primarily reflects the humanity of the individual rather than the happenstance of their condition.

Why Is Person-First Language Important?

The importance of using People-First Language is about value and respect. It’s important to understand that our words have meaning and that choosing the right language puts the person before the disability. People deserve the respect of being identified as a person first, rather than being characterized solely by perceived limitations. Widespread and persistent usage of identity-first terminology trains us to believe a person is somehow lesser than “ordinary” people. This isn’t a willful consequence. It develops gradually on a subconscious level. Once devalued, though, a person becomes an easier target for those who want to discriminate against others. 

Being respectful toward others is always an important attribute. Many of the descriptors we’ve historically used for individuals with disabilities are more than just outdated — they’re offensive and malicious. To make the conscious decision to avoid those descriptors is to apply the adage of doing unto others what we’d like done unto ourselves. It’s simply good manners, and it can help elevate the discourse surrounding physical, mental, and cognitive disabilities.

As behavioral health professionals, we should make an extra effort to recognize that people with disabilities are people first. Keeping that paramount in our minds can positively affect the services we provide. By adopting People-First Language, we allow people to define themselves, prevent ourselves from limiting others’ potential and dreams, and promote dignity and respect for individuals with disabilities throughout our society.

Identity First Language vs. People First Language 

Of course, there are nuances and a diverse range of opinions on the use of People-First Language. Some communities, collectively, may prefer identity-first language, which allows individuals to reclaim their disability as a part of their identity. With diagnoses like autism, for instance, the diagnosis itself plays a significant role in defining both personality and lifestyle. 

There’s no overarching right-or-wrong, no one-size-fits-all approach. The conversation around language is always evolving, and preferences vary, but we can strive to use language that empowers. If one person prefers People-First Language and another insists on identity-first terminology, both are right. The truest people-first approach, after all, would be to meet people on the terms they themselves define. If you’re unsure, ask the individual what they prefer and recognize that each individual has their own preferences.

Person-Centered Language in Practice

As an Implementation Consultant at Foothold Technology, I bring my belief in the importance of People First Language to every training. As I’m walking someone through our software’s functionality, I pull from my experiences to emphasize the importance of language when working with all individuals. 

This might mean highlighting some of the many ways Foothold Technology embraces the importance of person-centered language within the database itself. For example, the form-building functionality in our software gives agencies the ability to create forms that enable person-centered planning, where the focus can be on a person’s abilities rather than their disabilities. In addition, within an agency’s database, the label “client” or “consumer” can be changed to simply read “individual.” 

For I/DD organizations, using people-first language is a part of delivering person-centered services. Using the appropriate language in your notes, service plans, staff meetings, and daily interactions with individuals will go a long way. If you aren’t already, I hope you’ll consider ways to integrate People First Language into all aspects of your life. For those less familiar with this concept, I always recommend starting your journey by reading this helpful information compiled by The Arc.

The History of People-First Language

Though People-First Language began to stir in the public consciousness as early as the 1960s, its beginnings as a formal self-advocacy movement were in 1974. The launching grounds for the movement were in Salem, Oregon, the location of the first convention for individuals with developmental disabilities. In naming the event, one of the planners stated they were fed up with being identified with their disability. “We are people first,” they said. Hence the People-First Convention. 

That first convention hosted more than 500 attendees. By 1979, attendance had ballooned to around 1,000 and memberships were rising in Washington, Kansas, and Nebraska. Not only that, but residents from dozens of other states were striving to form chapters in their own areas. 

This era also saw the introduction of two federal statutes that would help transform how society viewed people with disabilities. In 1975, President Gerald Ford signed into law the Education for All Handicapped Children Act and the Developmentally Disabled Assistance and Bill of Rights Act. Respectively, these guaranteed that every American child with a disability would have access to a “free, appropriate public education” and required states to establish programs to protect and advocate for the rights of people with disabilities. In other words, these laws formalized the notion that these were people, and they deserved respect.

The cultural shift from that point has been steady. As we entered the 21st century, the world saw escalated efforts to put people first in the way we talk about disabilities. For example:

  • 2006: The People-First Respectful Language Modernization Act, enacted by the Council of the District of Columbia, required all District laws and publications to use “respectful language when referring to people with disabilities.”
  • 2009: The Spread the Word to End the Word movement arose during the Special Olympics to fight the use of offensive language commonly weaponized against people with intellectual disabilities. 
  • 2010: President Barack Obama signs Rosa’s Law, which replaces offensive terms for people with intellectual disabilities in all federal documents. 
  • 2016: A study published in the Journal of Counseling & Development, titled “The Power of Language and Labels: ‘The Mentally Ill’ Versus ‘People With Mental Illness,'” suggests that adopting People-First Language promotes higher levels of tolerance compared to the use of identity-first language.

Today, the people-first ideology has expanded to include not just people with physical, mental, or cognitive disabilities but also those with chronic health conditions.