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People-first language

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Title: People-first language  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
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Subject: Political correctness, Sociolinguistics, Disability etiquette, Disability, Individualized Education Program
Collection: Etiquette, Political Correctness, Sociolinguistics
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

People-first language

People-first language is a type of linguistic prescription in English, aiming to avoid perceived and subconscious dehumanization when discussing people with disabilities, as such forming an aspect of disability etiquette.

The basic idea is to impose a sentence structure that names the person first and the condition second, for example "people with disabilities" rather than "disabled people" or "disabled", in order to emphasize that "they are people first". Because English syntax normally places adjectives before nouns, it becomes necessary to insert relative clauses, replacing, e.g., "asthmatic person" with "a person who has asthma." Furthermore, the use of to be is deprecated in favor of using to have.

The speaker is thus expected to internalize the idea of a disability as a secondary attribute, not a characteristic of a person's identity. Critics of this rationale point out that separating the "person" from the "trait" implies that the trait is inherently bad or "less than", and thus dehumanizes people with disabilities.

The term people-first language first appears in 1988 as recommended by advocacy groups in the United States.[1] The usage has been widely adopted by speech-language pathologists and researchers, with 'person who stutters' (PWS) replacing 'stutterer'.[2]


  • Rationale 1
  • Usage guidelines 2
  • Criticism 3
  • References 4
  • Further reading 5


The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis is the basis for ideologically motivated linguistic prescriptivism. The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis states that language use significantly shapes perceptions of the world and forms ideological preconceptions. Strong versions of this linguistic relativity were popular during the 1960s and 1970s, reflected in practices such as cognitive therapy and neuro-linguistic programming.

In the case of people-first language, preconceptions judged to be negative allegedly arise from placing the name of the condition before the term "person" or "people". Proponents of people-first language argue that this places an undue focus on the condition which distracts from the humanity of the members of the community of people with the condition.

Usage guidelines

Many organizations publish disability etiquette guides that prescribe people-first language[3][4] The For Dummies guide to etiquette (2007) also prescribes people-first language.[5]

Adherence to the rules of people-first language has become a requirement in at least one academic journal.[6]


Critics have objected that people-first language is awkward, repetitive and makes for tiresome writing and reading. C. Edwin Vaughan, a sociologist and longtime activist for the blind, argues that since "in common usage positive pronouns usually precede nouns", "the awkwardness of the preferred language focuses on the disability in a new and potentially negative way". Thus, according to Vaughan, it only serves to "focus on disability in an ungainly new way" and "calls attention to a person as having some type of 'marred identity'" in terms of Erving Goffman's theory of identity.[7]

The National Federation of the Blind adopted a resolution in 1993 condemning politically correct language. The resolution dismissed the notion that "the word 'person' must invariably precede the word 'blind' to emphasize the fact that a blind person is first and foremost a person" as "totally unacceptable and pernicious" and resulting in the exact opposite of its purported aim, since "it is overly defensive, implies shame instead of true equality, and portrays the blind as touchy and belligerent".[8]

In Deaf culture, person-first language has long been rejected. Instead, Deaf culture uses Deaf-first language since being culturally deaf is a source of positive identity and pride.[9] Correct terms to use for this group would be "Deaf person" or "hard of hearing person".[10] The phrase "hearing impaired" is not acceptable to most Deaf or hard of hearing people because it emphasizes what they cannot do.[11]

Some autism activists reject person-first language, on the grounds that saying "person with autism" suggests that autism can be separated from the person.[12]

Advocates of the social model of disability also reject person-first language, defining themselves as "disabled people" and "disability" as the discrimination they face as a result of their impairments.[13]


  1. ^
  2. ^ Folkins, John (December 1992). "Resource on Person-First Language". American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. 
  3. ^ "Disability Etiquette". United Spinal Association. 2011. 
  4. ^ "Tools for Reporters: Disability Etiquette". United Cerebral Palsy. Retrieved June 29, 2013. 
  5. ^ Fox, Sue (2007). "Being Sensitive about Disabilities and Illnesses". Etiquette for Dummies. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 9781118051375.
  6. ^ "Shaping attitudes through person-first language". Life Span Institute, University of Kansas. Retrieved June 29, 2013. 
  7. ^ Vaughan, C. Edwin (1997). "People-First Language: An Unholy Crusade". National Federation of the Blind.
  8. ^ Jernigan, Kenneth (March 2009). "The Pitfalls of Political Correctness: Euphemisms Excoriated". Braille Monitor 52 (3). "Be it resolved by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled in the city of Dallas, Texas, this 9th day of July, 1993, that the following statement of policy be adopted: We believe that it is respectable to be blind, and although we have no particular pride in the fact of our blindness, neither do we have any shame in it. To the extent that euphemisms are used to convey any other concept or image, we deplore such use. We can make our own way in the world on equal terms with others, and we intend to do it."
  9. ^ Lum, Doman (2010). Culturally Competent Practice: A Framework for Understanding. Cengage Learning. p. 441.  
  10. ^ "Terminology Describing Deaf Individuals". Gallaudet University. Retrieved June 29, 2013. 
  11. ^ "Community and Culture – Frequently Asked Questions". National Association of the Deaf. Retrieved 2014-05-22. 
  12. ^ Sinclair, Jim. "Why I dislike person-first language". Autism Mythbusters. Retrieved June 29, 2013.
  13. ^ Egan, Lisa (November 9, 2012). "I'm Not A 'Person With a Disability': I'm a Disabled Person". XoJane.

Further reading

  • La Forge, Jan. "Preferred language practice in professional rehabilitation journals". The Journal of Rehabilitation 57 (1): 49-51..
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