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Why People First Language for Disabled People Doesn’t Work

Updated on December 8, 2016

OK, I know that I broke the first person language rule that some organizations for people with disabilities insist is necessary. I put “disabled” before “people.” People first language demands that I put the words “person with” or “person who has” before I mention their condition. Doing this is supposed to focus people’s attention on individuals, not their disability.

As a free-lance writer covering news related to people with disabilities, I have monitored news articles for several years now. Even though the concept of people first language has been around since the late 1980s, the media, including myself, don’t use it. As a result, I occasionally get email feedback from well-meaning people in the disability community who are proponents of people first language, demanding that I use this style in the future. This issue provokes strong feelings both for and against this style in people with disabilities.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), “people first” language is an appropriate and respectful way to address people with disabilities. Some disability-related websites such as United Cerebral Palsy say that people first language is “preferred” except in certain cases, such as “deaf” as a descriptor instead of a“person who is deaf.”

It is true that words are powerful and should be considered carefully before they are used to describe people. On the surface, people first language seems appropriate, but does it really work? The people first language concept has drawn a lot of criticism from some people within the disability community. Many disabled people feel that this way of identifying a disability is not only ineffective, but can be harmful.

Here are some reasons why some people with disabilities say that people first language does not work, and why the style has not been adopted by the media.

A "blind man" or "man who is blind?"

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People first language is ineffective

Critics like the Dr. C. Edwan Vaughan of the National Federation of the Blind have pointed out that there is no evidence that people first language is effective in changing public attitudes about disabilities. People who do not have disabilities often will react to descriptor words with their own prejudices and misconceptions, no matter where it appears in a sentence.

People first language is awkward and difficult to use

The constant use of phrases like “a person who has a mental illness” or a “person with autism” when writing or speaking about the disabled is cumbersome. Oft-repeated phrases are boring and tedious, as well as making articles too long. Using people first language is also problematic for writers who are limited to a specific number of words in news articles.

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Conversations are difficult

People first language also makes people without disabilities self-conscious when trying to carry on a conversation. Talking normally is difficult when the speaker has a persistent worry that words in common usage like “autistic” may be offensive. When they fail, they feel embarrassed and awkward.

People first language can be dehumanizing

The philosophy behind people first language is that it puts disabled people on an equal footing with non-disabled people, stop people viewing them as a label, and emphasizes that their disability is not the most important thing about them. One autistic man claimed in a blog that the opposite is actually true. He and others say that instead of taking the focus off of his condition, it makes his disabiity even more prominent when it is put at the end of an awkward phrase. People first language also makes their disability a secondary characteristic rather than an active part of who they are.

Some critics say that that separating “person” and a phrase like “with a disability” is dehumanizing. Many people with disabilities, particularly those with autism, embrace their condition and terms like “autistic” as a part of their identity. Some disabled people are concerned because they feel that the emphasis on “person” devalues their disability, which in turn marginalizes and re-stigmatizes them.

Descriptors in common usage are discarded

People first language eliminates a number of describer words such as "disabled" or "autistic" that have been accepted by people with disabilties. Not everyone embraces that idea. One man, for example stated emphatically in a blog that he is not a “person with autism,” he is “autistic” or an “autistic person.” Autism is a part of who he is, and he says he accepts it as a part of his identity as a person. Other people who have autism feel that the term "autistic" is an accurate way to describe their identity.

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Person first language is not universally accepted

A brief glance at the CDC websites and other disability-related sites give the impression that people first language is standard. This is not the case. One mother of a Down Syndrome child said in a blog that she encountered “language police” that corrected her like she was “12 years old.” She has decided to use people first language but doesn’t correct others. What she really wants is for her Down Syndrome child to be accepted and treated with respect.

People first language can create a moral dilemma, with people asking: Does one part of the disability community have the right to tell people with disabilities or their families how to describe themselves? Do they have the right to tell them that the words they are comfortable with such as “disabled” or “autistic” are wrong and insist everyone change their words?

"Identity-first" Language

A counter-movement has developed called "identity-first," which has been embraced by many in the disability community. Advocates say that putting their identity as a disabled person first is an acceptable way for people to identify themselves. They say separating person and their disability or using the term disabled actually insinuates that disability terms are negative and derogatory.

Some people get so caught up in correcting people’s language that they miss the point of what people first language is supposed to achieve – to fight stigma and to ensure that people with disabilities get the same treatment as everyone else.

My conclusions

When a person without a disability reads a descriptor such as “people with disabilities,” they will skip over the terms “people with” or "person who has." A word describing a disability may evoke negative images, misconceptions, and myths in the mind of the reader, whether the “person” words are there or not. Some people still look at disabled people as objects of pity, non-persons, and as being limited by their condition or intelligence.

What is truly needed here is a change in the public’s attitude towards people with disabilities, not fiddling around with words and policing their usage. While some progress has been made, individuals with disabilities, their families, advocates, and the media still need to continue to educate the public to treat the disabled as human beings.

As a writer, I don’t think that word order makes a difference in the way that people perceive individuals with disabilities.

I wish that the people first “language police” would take all the effort they put into correcting other people’s words and put their energy into educating the public that individuals with disabilities deserve equality, fair treatment, and respect, just like everyone else.

© 2013 Carola Finch

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    terthom 18 months ago

    Does the person with albinism want to be referred to as an "albino?" Does the person suffering from mental illness want to be described as "bipolar" or "schizophrenic." These words imply a degree of insensitivity and perhaps maliciousness. Though having a disability can be life altering, it does not define who you are. Person-first language is a response to historical stigma and bias associated with having a disability. If the negative connotations did not exist, there would be no need for countervailing language.

  • Carola Finch profile image
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    Carola Finch 3 years ago from Ontario, Canada

    Interesting comments. Thanks for sharing

  • denise.w.anderson profile image

    Denise W Anderson 3 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

    Political correctness in language, including that requiring the reference to those having disabilities as "people with disabilities" is a symptom of the polarization in our society between the learned and the unlearned, or those who have it and those who don't. Either we are correcting others, or have no control whatsoever over the language that comes out of our mouth. Maybe I am getting old, but I agree that we need more decency and less focus on things that really don't matter.

  • Carola Finch profile image
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    Carola Finch 3 years ago from Ontario, Canada

    Thanks for your comment, MsDora.

  • MsDora profile image

    Dora Isaac Weithers 3 years ago from The Caribbean

    Carola, I'm agreeing with you. I think that no matter how we say what we say, or write what we write, the attitude and intent of our hearts carry more weight. There is more than one way to be gracious and respectful. Thanks for dealing with this issue. Voted Up.

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