Person-first language is a linguistic approach that emphasizes placing the individual’s humanity and identity before any specific attribute or label (such as disability or condition). By prioritizing the person over the defining characteristic, person-first language aims to promote respect and dignity in communication.

What is person-first language?

Person-first language is an approach to communication that prioritizes the individual’s humanity and places their identity before any disability, condition, or other defining characteristic.

It emphasizes treating individuals with dignity and respect by using language that acknowledges their personhood rather than reducing them to a label. By focusing on the person rather than the disability or condition, person-first language aims to combat stereotypes, biases, and stigmas associated with various attributes.

By highlighting someone’s personhood before any other characteristic, person-first language places the individual at the forefront of the conversation. It recognizes that people should not be defined solely by their disabilities, medical conditions, or other labels.

The point is to acknowledge each individual’s inherent worth and value, regardless of their differences. It is a way to show respect and promote inclusivity by focusing on the person’s abilities, strengths, and potentials rather than their limitations.

Person-first language – example

An example of person-first language can be seen when referring to someone with a disability:

This subtle shift places the person before their disability, recognizing that their disability is not the defining aspect of their identity.

Similarly, instead of saying “an autistic child”, person-first language suggests saying “a child with autism”. This change acknowledges that the child’s identity encompasses more than just their autism and helps foster a more inclusive and respectful conversation. 

Here are more examples:

Person-first language and people-first language – What’s the difference?

The terms “person-first language” and “people-first language” are used interchangeably and are generally understood to convey the same concept. 

Some people and organizations may prefer one term over the other, but the underlying principles and intentions remain consistent.

Both aim to foster respect, inclusivity, and dignity by emphasizing individual personhood beyond labels or attributes.

Person-first language vs identity-first language

Supporters of person-first language argue that emphasizing the person before the disability or condition helps prevent stereotypes and reduces the risk of defining individuals solely by their differences. It aims to prioritize the individual’s humanity, focusing on their abilities and unique qualities rather than their limitations.

But while person-first language is widely embraced, there is an ongoing debate between person-first language and identity-first language. 

In fact, some people in the autism community are firmly against person-first language.

Identity-first language emphasizes the importance of embracing and affirming an individual’s identity as it is, including disabilities or conditions. It argues that these labels are integral to an individual’s identity and should be acknowledged without stigma.

For example, someone who prefers identity-first language may identify as “autistic” rather than “person with autism” to highlight their personal connection to their identity.

Here are other examples of identity-first language:

The underlying goal remains the same

While the debate between person-first language and identity-first language continues, the underlying goal remains the same: to promote empathy, understanding and dignity for all.

A general rule of thumb is to use a mix of both; if you figure out that the person in question prefers one or the other, you stick to that.

No “one-size-fits-all” solution

Person-first language can be a powerful tool to emphasize the importance of recognizing and valuing an individual’s humanity above any labels or characteristics. 

But it’s important to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Some people may prefer identity-first language as it aligns with their personal experiences and empower their sense of identity. It is crucial to respect individual preferences and listen to the voice of those directly affected by the labels in question. 

It’s also important to note that person-first language extends beyond disability or medical conditions. It can be applied to various aspects of identity, such as race, gender, or sexual orientation.

Moreover, person-first language should be accompanied by genuine respect and understanding. It is not enough to simply change the language you use; you must also challenge your biases and attitudes towards individuals with different attributes or identities. 

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