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The Importance of Person-First Language

30 June 2021

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It all comes down to respect. Nobody is their disability and no one should be defined by their barriers. They are people living with a disability so why not use words that reflect that? Some words are actively being campaigned against, like the words retarded or even disabled. Oftentimes, however, we don’t even realize we are using language that might belittle or demean someone living with a disability. Saying someone is autistic rather than a person living with autism, saying someone is learning disabled rather than living with a learning disability - it’s phrasing so subtle one has to wonder, what is the point in making an effort to change?

According to the Ann Sullivan Center in Lima, Peru, “The way we describe a group of people greatly influences our attitude toward them, and consequently, how society treats them.” The phrasing that they have decided to use rather than “disabled person” is “person with a different ability”. It puts emphasis not only on the person but on the fact that they have capabilities just like everyone else.

When I first learned about first-person language, I decided to make a conscious effort to catch myself and choose different words because it is part of the respect for others I needed to build in order to work with people living with disabilities. It was during my time working at a summer camp for individuals of all ages and varying levels of intellectual and physical ability. Changing my vocabulary was vital to making sure the camp environment was inclusive and fun for everyone. I’ve taken these habits into everyday life and into my work with HOPE as well. Words aren’t just words - they’re what we use to refer to the world and they are tell-tale signs of our opinions and perspectives. Sure, if one person starts using person-first language, it isn’t going to change the world. However, it sure is indicative of the kind of world that person wants to live in.