People-First Language

by Lisa Glover

If I asked my friend Joel to describe himself, he might say, “I’m a forty year-old who loves reading, telling cheesy jokes, going to Wolfgang’s for breakfast, listening to Michael W. Smith and going bowling with my friends from Indian Trails on Tuesdays. I’m a son, a brother and an uncle. I’m a Christian.”

If I asked a stranger to describe Joel, they might say, “He’s wheelchair-bound”.

Why do we so often define people by things other than who they are? How might changing our speech ultimately change the way we view people? Words are powerful. Old, inaccurate, and inappropriate descriptors perpetuate negative stereotypes and attitudinal barriers, as The Arc tells us.

People-first language is as simple as its title. It means acknowledging first that a person is a human being. It creates a level playing field and allows for a person to have dignity. Too often I hear people being defined by their disability, which inhibits the world from seeing their gifts, abilities and full potential.

“Our words and the meanings we attach to them create attitudes, drive social policies and laws, influence our feelings and decisions, and affect people’s daily lives and more. How we use them makes a difference. People First Language puts the person before the disability, and describes what a person has, not who a person is. Using a diagnosis as a defining characteristic reflects prejudice, and also robs the person of the opportunity to define him/herself” (Arc).

No person is disabled. No person is Down Syndrome. No person is wheelchair-bound. No person is special needs.

Joel is a man who happens to have Cerebral Palsy. By acknowledging that first and foremost Joel is a person, it allows for a change in my mindset and in my heart to understand that he and I are not so different. We both have passions, dreams, goals and people in our communities that are committed to helping us attain those things.

To some, this minor change in language may seem too particular, insignificant or time-consuming. It may seem oversensitive. If you are thinking these things, ask yourself if you have ever been hurt by a disability defining who you are.

Has someone ever thought less of you because you use a wheelchair or think you can’t hear because you don’t communicate verbally? Have you ever been ridiculed because you look different or you need help eating? If you haven’t experienced any of these things, it’s because you don’t have to. Please consider that not everyone has the same privilege you do. Take the time to think about the world from a different perspective. The way we speak truly impacts those around us. Who might we be hurting without being aware of it?

Using people-first language is not just a benefit to people who have disabilities. The people who will receive the most benefit are those changing their mindset. By acknowledging that a person is a human being just like anyone else, we will be able to learn from them, grow with them and be blessed by their gifts and abilities. In this way, we can work toward intentionally living out 1 Corinthians 12:12-27. This is my prayer for us.

Lisa Glover is the House Two Program Coordinator at David’s House Ministries.

Read more about Lisa here.