Words are powerful. They can either build us up or break us down. To show respect for and accurately reflect the lives of people with disabilities, the Disability Rights Movement advocates improving how we talk about our differences. Person First Language – also called People First Language (PFL) – is a way of communicating which reflects knowledge and respect for people with disabilities by choosing words that recognize the person first and foremost, as the primary reference, and not his or her disability.
For example, someone might say, “he’s ADHD” to describe a child with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Instead, using person-first language, would change this statement to “the child who has ADHD”.
Because our society has historically identified the disability before the person –
a demeaning practice that stereotypes the person and prevents others from seeing all aspects of her or his identity – this shift will take practice for us to change. However, if we put the effort in to be educated and fully understand its importance, this change in how we see people with different abilities will have a positive effect on them, and on society as a whole.
Speaking and writing this way clearly communicates that you define an individual as a whole person, not by their disability. It also conveys that you understand that someone is living with a disability – not that their disability or difference is their whole life.
Today, I still meet individuals who are not using person-first language. It frustrates me. At the same time I understand that they may just need a little more education on this topic. When in conversation, I make it a practice to give friendly reminders to individuals who may not initially use person-first language. I encourage everyone to kindly remind the person you are talking to next to alter the way they are addressing or referring to someone with a disability. It may take a village, but we sure are capable of this change.