What is People First Language?

The language a society uses to refer to persons with disabilities shapes its beliefs and ideas about them. Words are powerful; Old, inaccurate, and inappropriate descriptors perpetuate negative stereotypes and attitudinal barriers. When we describe people by their labels of medical diagnoses, we devalue and disrespect them as individuals. In contrast, using thoughtful terminology can foster positive attitudes about persons with disabilities. One of the major improvements in communicating with and about people with disabilities is "People-First Language.” People-First Language emphasizes the person, not the disability. By placing the person first, the disability is no longer the primary, defining characteristic of an individual, but one of several aspects of the whole person. People-First Language is an objective way of acknowledging, communicating, and reporting on disabilities. It eliminates generalizations and stereotypes, by focusing on the person rather than the disability.

Disability is not the “problem.” For example, a person who wears glasses doesn’t say, “I have a problem seeing,” they say, “I wear/need glasses.” Similarly, a person who uses a wheelchair doesn’t say, “I have a problem walking,” they say, “I use/need a wheelchair.”   

“What is People First Language?”

We want our words to create a culture based on dignity and respect for each unique individual. In past years at ADVANCE, we have used various descriptors such as trainee, client, consumer and person supported. The problem is that no matter how thoughtful and dignified the word selected, it becomes a label. And a label ends up separating us rather than joining us as a human race. A label does not highlight the individual qualities of a person. The challenge is upon all of us to remove labels from our language. Encourage your coworker, your uncle, your daughter and your neighbor to do the same!

Here are a few suggestions of what to say:
•    A person with a disability (NOT the disabled or the handicapped)
•    A person who communicates with their eyes, gestures or Dynavox  ( NOT he is non-verbal)
•    A person receiving supports through ADVANCE  ( NOT people supported)    
•    A child without disabilities    (NOT normal, typical or healthy kids)
•    Harriet has autism   (NOT she’s autistic)