Person-First Language

Written by Seth Pozzi, Head of School on .

Person-First Language
It’s not just about being politically correct

Our language shapes our attitudes; our attitudes shape our language; they're intertwined. If you’ve been reading my newsletter and blog articles over the years, you know how strongly I feel that the specific words we choose can impact a child's mindset, motivation, self-image, and the likelihood they may comply with what’s being asked of them. Language also has significant implications in how we teach children to perceive others. Using person-first language is one way we convey respect and dignity to people and avoid teaching children implicit bias.  

What is Person-First Language?
Quite simply, it means putting the person first when talking about someone. Person-first language avoids using labels or adjectives to define someone, utilizing terms such as "a person with diabetes or "a person with dyslexia instead of a diabetic or a dyselxic. The intention is for a person to be seen foremost as a person and only secondly as a person with some trait. Here are some examples:

Person-first language originated in the education and disability communities. It has become more present, though I would argue not as ubiquitous as it should be, in journalism and media and in the legal code. 

journalists and editors remember to use person-first language (or focus more explicitly on the person, not their traits), it can help reduce bias in the media.

Think about these three sentences:

  • The man ran from the burning building.
  • The Black man ran from the burning building. 
  • The turban-wearing man ran from the burning building. 

Like it or not, our own implicit bias kicks in when race, gender, weight, age, religion or other factors are involved. The topics of bias and representation are complex and will be discussed in other blog posts and conversations. The point being that careful word choice has power.

Legal System
The legal system is also gradually evolving. Just this year, AB 46 was signed into California law, replacing derogatory and stigmatizing terms such as crazy, lunatic, insane, feeble-minded, mentally defective, and abnormal (which were part  of the legal code until 2019!) with terms less rooted in negative stereotypes, such as: a person experiencing a mental health disorder.

Learning Profile & Personality Profile
In our school, in addition to striving to always use person-first language, we use the terminology: learning profile
or personality profile. We work with a lot of gifted (about 1 in 5 WHPS students) and highly intellectual children and also children who experience a variety of learning differences or are on the autism spectrum. We find that viewing these traits as part of the child’s learning and/or personality profile helps to acknowledge that giftedness, high IQ, anxiety, ADHD, sensory processing, speech/language disorders, dyslexia or autism are only one, of many, aspects of the child’s learning or personality profile.

My closing thought...
We can't always get it right, but we should make our best effort to use person-first and respectful language intentionally. If you're not sure, try talking like a [good] journalist: focus explicitly on the person, not their traits. If you are talking to your child about that boy in their class. Consider just calling him the boy rather than adding (autistic, gifted, Black, Spanish-speaking, epileptic, gay, Muslim, etc.). It's a small language shift that could reduce some of the implicit bias we pass along to our kids.

* Addendum About the Autism Community (Person-First v. Identity First Language)

Identity-first language is preferred by some people in the autism community. While many autism advocacy groups support using person-first language (in general), there are different opinions about person-first language as it pertains to the autism community.

Identity-First Instead?
In the autism community, some self-advocates and their allies prefer terminology such as “autistic,” “autistic person,” or “autistic individual” because they see autism as an inherent part of an individual’s identity. They feel is impossible to affirm the value and worth of an autistic person without recognizing his or her identity as an autistic person. Some of these advocates assert that referring to someone as “a person with autism,” or “an individual with ASD” is demeaning because it implies that
 it is unfortunate and an accident that a person is autistic. These advocates say that using person-first language implies that the person has value and worth, and that autism is entirely separate from what gives him or her value and worth. Most of these advocates are careful to point out that they don't reject the principles of person-first language, rather, they reject the assumption that autism is an affliction.

Positive v. Negative Stigma
These advocates often point out that (in general) we don't separate traits like "winner," saying, "person who has won," because winning is not regarded as a negative that should be untangled from someone's identity. The argument above treats autism similarly: it is not a negative to be untangled from an autistic person's identity; therefore the use of person-first language may be misguided in this particular context. Person-first language aims to separate disabilities and other negative characteristics from people: this intention to be respectful may backfire if it demonstrates that the person writing or speaking regards the characteristic negatively when the person being described does not.

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