With this month’s focus on intersectionality, I thought it would be important to highlight how the language we use can perpetuate an individual’s experience of discrimination. Often it seems that we are talking about the individuals we support rather than to them, creating a perpetual dichotomy of us vs. them. Typically, this is not done out of malevolence but out of fear of using the wrong language. When we use language that attributes a person’s entire identity to their disability we contribute to the oversimplification of that individual’s experience. History has indicated that often labels have a direct correlation to the degree of value we place upon that person. The idea behind intersectionality is to move away from defining people by a singular identity factor and instead seeking to understand their unique experience. 

So, what is person-first language? It is a language in which emphasis is placed on personhood of the individual rather than their disability or diagnosis. The importance of person-first language is to avoid perceived and subconscious dehumanization. It is also a more accurate way of speaking about people. Placing the individual first before their disability helps break away from harmful stereotypes and assumptions. The shift can be subtle yet powerful.

Example of what to say:Example of what not to say:
Accessible parking, bathrooms, etc.Handicapped parking, bathrooms, etc.
Person with a learning disabilityLearning disabled
People with disabilitiesThe handicapped, the disabled

Some further tips on using person-first language are: avoid using words like, suffers from, afflicted with, condition etc. Avoid euphemisms such as physically challenged, or impaired, and recognize that a disability is not something to overcome. 

People should not be defined solely by their disability; however, it is important to consider that to some, their disability could be an important part of their identity. Recognizing that an individual’s disability can often be central to their lived experience and communicating in a way that is respectful of their personal preference is essential. When in doubt, a helpful tip is to listen and observe the language used by the individual and take cues from what they say. In a sense, the goal is to mirror their language. If you are still feeling unsure about how to address a person you’re talking to, simply ask what their preference is. After all, it is important not to let our socially constructed labels define people, but rather use our language to leave space for them to define themselves.  

Below is a great TedTalk by Arielle Zellis, which unpacks person-first language and discusses how our differences are only one part of our complex humanness.