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Focus on the Person First is Good Etiquette

Focus on the Person; Not the Disability


Updated April 28, 2014

Focus on the Person First is Good Etiquette

Person First Language

Person first language is the politically correct way to talk about disabilities. In talking about children with disabilities, we may hear or say things like, "He's ADHD," or "He's a Down's kid." We have all heard and probably said these things without much thought. Person first language is an alternative way to talk about children's disabilities that places the focus on the person and not the disability. To use person first language, simply say the person's name or use a pronoun first, follow it with the appropriate verb, and then state the name of the disability.

Instead of:

  • He's ADHD.
  • He's a Down's kid.
  • She's LD.
  • A disabled program is in that building.
Use Statements Like These:
  • John has ADHD.
  • David has Down's Syndrome.
  • Susan is a child with a learning disability.
  • That building houses a program for people who have disabilities.
Using person first language takes more time. In writing, it takes more words to describe people and programs. However, using person first language shifts our focus from the disability and what is "wrong" to the person. It makes us think about the person as coping with a disability rather than being thought of only in terms of the disability.

Many disability advocates believe that using person first language helps teachers, therapists, parents, and service providers remember they are working with a person who has dignity, feelings, and rights. They are not a disability or a disease. They are people with a disability or disease. This subtle but powerful language shift helps us view people with disabilities as capable and deserving of respect.

It is important to note, however, that some people with disabilities have their own preferences about how we discuss their disability. For example, in some deaf communities, it is preferred to say "He's deaf," rather than "He has deafness." In some communities of the blind, it is preferred that we say "He's blind," rather than he has "blindness." Further, some communities of the blind prefer to say "person without sight."

When in doubt, you can observe and listen to the language used by a person with disabilities, and take your cues from what is said. You may also ask if teachers or persons with disabilities in your area are willing to share their preferences with you. If all else fails, and you accidentally offend someone, a sincere apology can help.

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