A few months ago I was hanging out with my sister. We were sitting around chatting and I asked her how her summer job babysitting an autistic boy was going. Without hesitating she said, “the boy with autism.” Now, usually I am the grammar nerd in the family so I stopped to think about what mistake I may have made. Seeing my confusion she repeated: “the boy with autism, you know, person first language.” At the time I did not know. But now I do, and it is not a mistake I plan to make again.
You will soon be hearing a lot about person first language though it is still in the infant stages of becoming viral. Person first language is exactly what it sounds like: when describing a person, you put the person first, not the object of the sentence.
Here is an example of it in its most basic form:
The Current Norm: the brown haired girl read a book.
Person first language: the girl with the brown hair read a book.
You are probably thinking, why does it matter? It doesn’t change anything, she still has brown hair. But in the first sentence the focus is on the hair and in the second it is on the girl, the individual being discussed.
This language may not be super relevant when discussing hair color or height but it makes a huge difference when discussing mental health, illness, and disabilities.
For a person who has a disability (<– that’s person first language!), it can be hard not to be defined by it. And putting their disability or health issue first is literally defining the individual based on that one part of their life.
To define a person based on a disability, physical illness, or mental illness can not only decrease the persons self-esteem but it also slowly encourages the dehumanization process of those individuals.
Using person first language puts the focus back on the individual and, while their disability or illness is a part of them, it does not define who they are.
Here are some more examples of the difference:
- The diabetic man ran a half marathon. The man with diabetes ran a half marathon.
- Today, an autistic boy gave me a hug. Today, a boy with autism gave me a hug.
- The cancer patient went into remission. The patient with cancer went into remission.
This might be a new concept to you, and if it is, don’t worry about messing up. It takes awhile to retrain our brains to think a new way.
How to Train Your Brain to Use Person First Language:
- Be aware of how you are saying or describing people. You will be amazed at how much you actually describe people in your everyday conversations.
- Catch yourself if you don’t use person first language. Internalize it, and and realize how and why you did not use it.
- Implement using person first language in your life. As you start catching yourself and fixing your wording it will become natural.
- Encourage others to use person first language.
Always remember that every single individual, no matter how they look or talk or walk deserves respect! The first step is always recognizing and acknowledging the problem. Then we have to fix it. If each of us inspires just one other person to use person first language, imagine how fast it could spread and how many individuals will feel respected every day.