Person-First Language

Something we talk about fairly regularly here at the Ranch is language and its ability to influence our perceptions of things. When I’m training new staff members, I always like to discuss with them words and terms we use when describing what we do and, more importantly, who we work with.

Everyone has their own preferences for the ways they would like to be described by others – this is not unique to people who have been diagnosed with a chronic condition or disability. For instance, I would prefer that people use my name to talk about me rather than pointing or referring to me as “her” if I’m in the room. In other situations, I hope that people would use words like “kind,” “fun,” and “silly” to describe me. Of course, I don’t have much control over the words that other people use to describe me. None of us do, really. We can however help people to think about the impact of their words and how they affect us. The words we use help to shape our understanding and perspective of what (or who) we are describing.

In the past, many of the terms we used to describe those whose abilities differed from ours tended to focus on the things people couldn’t do: people were described as “mentally retarded” or as “handicapped.” The more we use these words, the more distance we put between ourselves and these individuals. We are focussing on how they are different and what they can’t do. The more we use words like this, the more we forget that these individuals are people with a huge range of abilities, wants, needs, talents, skills, and personalities.

Recently, there has more often been an emphasis on using person-first language when describing individuals who have varying diagnoses. This concept is very important to me and to our philosophy here at the Ranch. Person-first language means that rather than referring to someone as “a disabled person” or “an autistic kid,” we reverse the order of those words in order to refer to them as “a person with a disability” or “a child with autism.”

Person-first language is important for a number of reasons:

An individual is not defined by his/her diagnosis. Everyone deserves to be referred to firstly as a person. This person might also experience the world from a wheelchair, or have a diagnosis on the autism spectrum. However, regardless of the circumstances, each individual is a person who has inherent value.

– By referring to a group collectively as “handicapped” or “disabled” we are grouping them all together as if someone who has Down syndrome and someone who has low vision share all of the same characteristics. Of course, we know that this is not true. It is harmful to use language that groups a very broad range of individuals and abilities into one small category.

Some other terms we are conscious of as well:

Handicapped: I want to explain specifically why this term isn’t a very accurate one to use. A handicap, by definition, is a barrier that comes from our environment or attitude. While we might be handicapped by our present circumstances in a given situation, there are many situations in life in which this individual can be very successful!

Blind vs. visually impaired (and deaf vs. hearing impaired): while some people have zero vision or zero hearing and can be referred to as blind or deaf, this is certainly not the case for everyone. Many people who require the assistance of canes, assistance dogs, hearing aids, or interpreters have some vision or hearing. Using terms like “visually impaired” or “hearing impaired” are useful as they can be accurate regardless of the degree of vision or hearing loss.

– “Suffers from”: People often describe others as “suffering from” a particular condition, whether cancer, cerebral palsy, or epilepsy. While it may certainly be the case that this person has been diagnosed with the condition in question, you probably don’t have any idea how they feel about it or how much they are suffering! In fact, this answer likely changes from day to day. Use terms like “has been diagnosed with cancer,” “lives with cystic fibrosis,” or “has cerebral palsy” instead.

I know it can be difficult to keep up with the terminology which is “politically correct” as our understanding of various conditions change through advances in research, technology, and advocacy. You don’t necessarily have to be on top of the right word to describe every person and every condition, but here are two key points to keep in mind:

Everyone gets to decide how they want to be described for themselves.

You have the power to decide how you make others feel, and the words you choose have an enormous impact. Our campers have a huge range of abilities, and we choose to focus on possibilities and what our campers can achieve and accomplish.

What terms do you hear being used that you wish you could change? What concept do you wish you had better words to describe?