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The Importance of Person First Language

The language we use and the labels that we place on individuals are powerful. In today’s society we rely heavily on medical diagnoses to define a person’s values, their strengths and weakness, their education, the services that people are eligible to receive and ultimately their future. Too often an individual’s diagnosis is used to define them as an individual – the retard, the autistic boy, the stutterer. Person First Language is a way to put the person before the disability, “describing what a person has, not who a person is (Snow, 2009).

The Importance of Person First Language:

In reflecting on the importance of person-first language, think for a minute how you would feel to be defined by yourPerson First Language perceived “negative” characteristics. For instance, being referred to as the heavy boy, the acne student, or the bald lady. To be known only by what society perceives as negative characteristics or “problems” would completely disregard all of the positive characteristics that make you as an individual who you are (Snow, 2009). Individuals with disabilities are more than their diagnosis. They are people first. The boy next door who has autism is more than an autistic boy, he is a brother, a son and a friend who happens to have autism. The girl who stutters in class is more than a stutterer – she is a daughter, a sister, and a best friend who has a fluency disorder.

Contrary to society’s definition, having a disability is not a problem. When defining a person by their disability, there is a negative implication that that person is broken. Especially within the health care field, it is imperative that we as professionals, co-workers and human beings begin to focus on other’s strengths. By focusing on the strengths of individuals who have disabilities, we are setting up our clients and friends for success. Using person-first language is a great first step to this change of thinking.

Use the table below to help guide your language in following person-first language recommendations:

Rather than…Please Say…
AutisticChild who has autism spectrum disorder
StuttererBoy/Girl who has a fluency disorder
RetardA child with a cognitive defect
Slow childA child who has a learning disability
Non-verbal childShe communicates with her device
Down’s kidChild who has Down’s Syndrome

This table is by no means a definite list. However, it can help build a framework for the importance of person-first language and how to implement it into your own language. When you are unsure of how person-first language applies to a situation, remember the emphasis is on the person as a whole – putting the person before his or her disability.

NSPT offers services in BucktownEvanstonHighland ParkLincolnwoodGlenview and Des Plaines. If you have questions or concerns about your child, we would love to help! Give us a call at (877) 486-4140 and speak to one of our Family Child Advocates today!

Snow, Kathie (2009). People First Language. Disability is Natural. Retrieved from www.disabilityisnatural.com