Why is Person First Language Important and 7 Ways You Can Start Using It Right Now

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We’re usually not taught to speak with person-first language. But a person with a disability is a person first. Person-first language is more inclusive of people with disabilities, centering someone’s humanity over their disability or condition. So instead of writing “the mentally ill,” you might use “people with mental health conditions.” It may be a bit wordier, but it’s important to learn how to use person-first language and avoid its opposite, identity-first language.

Person-first language puts a person ahead of any disability identifier. It’s about putting a person before an illness or disability they experience. On an individual level, it’s important to affirm someone’s personhood rather than hold their medical conditions and disabilities of greater importance than them.

On a systemic level, it’s important to use person-first language in the face of a long history of disability abuse. People with disabilities have historically been considered weak and unable to contribute to society; abandoned and shackled in asylums; and forced to undergo sterilization—among other atrocities. After centuries of a culture of abuse, the disability rights movement gained major momentum in the 1960s, alongside the civil rights movement, but didn’t pass the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) until 1990.

Using person-first language is one of the easiest things you can do to make people with disabilities feel more included and to unlearn language and thinking that may be culturally accepted but comes from a long legacy of disability abuse. Identity-first language, or language that puts an identifier ahead of the person, is the language you want to avoid. 

Some people do not like person-first language because their disability is inextricable from who they are. It’s good to ask what someone prefers, but default to using person-first language.

Here are seven examples of identity-first language and the person-first language you can start using instead.

1. Suffers from… / afflicted with… / victim of…

These terms inherently assume that someone’s disability has severely downgraded the quality of their life to the point where they are a victim or are suffering. It assumes pity. It assumes that a disability is equal to suffering, and it takes away agency of the person with the disability. Every person with a disability is not suffering.

Instead, opt for neutral language like saying, they “have a hearing impairment.”

2. Schizophrenic

This is an example of a term that places the condition over the person to the point where they are solely identified by the illness. In other words, this is an example of identity-first language. Instead of identifying someone solely by their schizophrenia, you should say, “person with schizophrenia.”

This applies to other mental illnesses like bipolar disorder. Instead of calling someone bipolar, you should say, “person with bipolar disorder.”

3. Handicap and handicapped parking

While the term historically referred to physical disability that involved severe impairment, the term is no longer accepted and is sometimes used offensively. Instead of saying handicap, refer to someone’s specific disability or simply say “person with a disability.”

Another example of where to change out the word handicap is in the context of parking. A great alternative to handicap parking is “accessible parking.”

4. Family burden or caregiver burden

Historically, people with disabilities were considered to be burdens and were treated with contempt as a result of this attitude. There is no situation in which using the word “burden,” which assumes pure difficulty and negativity, in the context of caring for people with disabilities is acceptable. To refer to a person as a burden is also dehumanizing.

Instead, call it what it is: care and support. This could sound like “an individual with family support needs” or “caring for a person with addiction.”

5. Loony bin or madhouse

People with disabilities were often quickly cast to the side and to abusive facilities, and there is a lot of remnant language from that culture. Looney bin and madhouse, for example, are both terms that acknowledge the inattention and poor care given to people with disabilities and are okay with it so long as they are kept separate.

The proper terms are psychiatric hospital or mental health hospital.

6. Lame

Right now, this word is culturally accepted and is often used to describe things that aren’t cool. “Lame” got its start describing difficulty with physical movement after an impairment before becoming a sort of synonym for weakness.

Instead, “boring” and “dull” are great alternatives that will convey the same meaning without continuing a legacy of disability abuse.

7. Addict, junkie, and alcoholic

To this day, people with drug addictions and alcohol problems are viewed with intense negativity. Stigma against addiction and alcohol problems assumes that people choose to become and stay addicted.

Instead of using derogatory, identity-first language like “addict” or “junkie,” use person-first language like “person with a drug addiction” or “person with alcohol use disorder.” 

We noted seven examples of person-first language in this article but encourage this to be a jumping off point for your learning. Before reading, did you know what person-first language is and why person-first language is important? Were you aware of the long history of disability abuse and for how little of time people with disabilities have had equal opportunity rights under ADA? Did you realize how much of our language and thinking comes from a legacy of disability abuse? Teach your friends and take the opportunity to teach others about today’s climate towards people with disabilities and how to be more inclusive.

If you have a website and are interested in checking how inclusive your language is, use the free inclusivity tool to see what you’re doing right and where to improve.