Person-First Language

Mar 30, 2022

Interacting with people who are different than you can be uncomfortable when you do not have the words for the situation.

Recall a time when you interacted with a person who had a disability. Did you know how to navigate the situation or were you a bit uncomfortable? Addressing the encounter from a person-first perspective is often best. With person-first language, we show respect by addressing the person as a valued member of society, a member who may just so happen to have a disability.

Meet Lee, listen to his story, and perhaps see where the language he encountered has not been the most inclusive.

Lee Nguyen was born with spina bifida, a congenital disorder affecting his spinal cord. As a child, Lee had few friends, as most of his peers were either afraid of him or outright mean. Being called “cripple”, “half-boy", or “useless”, had a profound effect on Lee as he developed. Other children would call out, “Get that disabled kid out of here! Cripples can’t play!” As Lee grew older, he acquired more friends, as his peers became slightly less focused on his disability. However, there were still times that he wondered if even his best friends knew how marginalizing they could be. Lee often heard his able-bodied friends describe him as, “Actually a very fun person despite Lee being wheelchair bound.” Lee desperately wanted to be known as, “The smart person who could be a lot of fun.” One introduction in college stood out for Lee as egregious.

“Mary, meet my friend, Lee. He is a spina bifida patient.

Despite that awkward beginning, the two were married a year out of college. Lee, a newly minted social worker, and Mary, a new nurse, started planning the rest of their lives.

The life-long micro-aggressions—like the small, possibly unintended insults exhibited by Lee’s friends—are hard to shrug off. With person-first language (PFL) we give the individual the right and the opportunity to define themselves, and we acknowledge the person before their disability. As such, instead of Lee being surprisingly smart for a cripple guy, Lee could be my enjoyable, intelligent friend here to hang out with us. Furthermore, Lee’s peers from his youth were outright cruel. Remember the child who yelled, “Get that disabled kid out of here!”? Not only was this heartbreaking, but it was not person-first. With PFL, we do not equate the person with their disability. So, a better wording might be, “Get that kid with a disability out of here!” Of course it would be best for the statement to have been avoided entirely, but if you’re going to be cruel, it’s best to do so with a little respect, because surely Lee is something beyond being disabled.

Another red flag was raised upon his introduction to his wife Mary. The exchange started well with names being given, but then Lee was equated to his spina bifida diagnosis and called a “patient”. We know not to make a person out to be just disabled, but we should also be wary of assuming that an individual is a medical patient. Generally, if you’re not in a medical setting, you are not a patient (exceptions could be cancer or dialysis patients). However, it shows more respect if you say, “patient with cancer” or “someone who uses dialysis”. The goal is not to make everyone extremely long-winded, but to respect the person first.

In this brief depiction, Lee was referred to as a cripple. Other terms of the past have fallen out of polite, appropriate conversations as well. A short list may include the following: cripple, half-man, invalid, retard, wheelchair bound, crazy. The last word deserves a bit of an aside. Culturally, we seemed to have adopted the word “crazy” to fit many contexts, not all of which are person-first or accurate. A situation may be crazy, or a turn of events might be termed so. However, by and large, people are not crazy. They are often doing what works for them or what has worked in the past. No one is truly crippled or half a person, no one is invalid or retarded, and, generally, no one is bound to a wheelchair. Similarly, no individual is inconceivably crazy. Put yourself in the “crazy” person’s position. If you were to learn enough about that person, they might just make perfect sense. Also, Lee is a survivor, not a victim. Victims need two things: funeral rights and sometimes respect. Let Lee keep his power as a survivor.

As each person has the right and the ability to define themselves, some people prefer to be called “disabled”. Some use the term “cripple”. If you are confused now about how to address people with disabilities, you are probably not alone. But there is a simple solution: just call them by their names and recognize the person and their strengths. Finally, this question is frequently asked: “When is it okay to help?” For myself and for most people with disabilities whom I have met, it is preferred if the able-bodied person does in fact ask before stepping in. Always remember, the only assumption we can make is competence.

Click HERE to learn more about the Wellview services available to you. We can’t wait to work with you!

– Richard DeBord

M.S. Clinical Rehabilitation Counselor, Nationally Certified Counselor (NCC), Certified Rehabilitation Counselor (CRC)

Mental Health Specialist | Email Richard

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