Could You Please Stop Insisting that People Have to Use Person First Language

There are so many of those lists explaining how to speak to disabled people respectfully. They are generally well intentioned and some of them are even really good. There is however an almost universal element that I wish would be retired. They inevitably include a statement that disabled people should ALWAYS be referred to using Person First Language (see an example here).

I have issues with the command to always use Person First Language for two reasons.

1. Person First Language is culturally geographic. It is only consider PC in North America. Interestingly if you were to read the same article in English speaking Europe they would insist that you say “disabled person”.
2. Despite it being widely considered PC in North America, a growing number of disabled people (myself included, see here and here) are intentionally abandoning it.

This isn’t about completely switching the script. I’m not suggesting that we ban Person First Language or that people shouldn’t use it (so don’t attack me in the comments). I’m saying that realistically person first language is not always appropriate (from a purely cultural sensitivity angle) and demanding that it be used anyway is a tad clueless.

The insistence  that people MUST use People First Language is also just disrespectful, not only to how many people are coming to self-identify but also completely ignoring that the reasons that we do so might actually be valid. Ignoring the voices and preferences of actual disabled people just reinforces the idea that we are incapable of determining what is best for us.

Whenever I come across the Person First edict on a “How to Be Respectful about”. Disability” list. I always wish it had been replaced with something along the lines of,

How to Deal with Disability Labels

Language around disability is complicated and there is currently no universally accepted term. Even the terms that are considered most acceptable like people with disabilities (in North America) and disabled people (in the UK) are not universally accepted by people in those locations. In order to be respectful it is usually inoffensive to default to the most acceptable term based on your location. However, if a person expresses an alternate preference, it is extremely rude and disrespectful to insist that they conform to the dominant preference. Best practice would be to utilize the term that the individual prefers.

I repeat. It is extremely rude and disrespectful to impose labels on people who have clearly expressed an alternate preference.

I wish this concept wasn’t so hard to understand.



8 thoughts on “Could You Please Stop Insisting that People Have to Use Person First Language

  1. I usually suggest people use person first unless directed otherwise or unless talking about culturally Deaf people. General guideline not a hard rule. Identity markers require fluid language use; which tends to make people whom don’t have to deal with a minority identity cranky. :p


  2. Please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems similar (or along similar lines) to calling someone by the wrong name or a nickname after they’ve explicitly told you in which way they’d like to be referred. I heard the “person first” insistence when I was studying for my BA in Psych, but that was 13 years ago, and many of the testimonials and shared experiences I’ve heard in the interim do not support it. I know how rankled I become when I see videos along the lines of “You’re not depressed. You have depression,” and then a slew of useless platitudes. Um, I’m pretty sure I’m depressed. It comes down to respecting the individual’s wishes for how they want to be called.


  3. When my son was born, I didn’t use people first language because I didn’t know about it. When I learned about it and started using it, I then hear people are using the term disabled person. As my son ages and matures, he does not identify as a person with a disability. Therefore, I do not use the phrase, “disabled person.” It’s like many things in life, ask and listen. Each person is different. I will admit hearing friends call themselves autistic does make me cringe a bit, but that is my issue not theirs. I use the language they use and feel comfortable with just like my son does not call himself disabled.


  4. Joining the conversation a little late, but I wanted to add a personal experience. I’m a philosopher working on philosophy of language, and my work concentrates on language and communication disorders. I wrote an article on Autism a few years back, and because I know more than a few people with autism who prefer to be called autistic, I opted for using both ‘people with autism’ and ‘autistics’ interchangeably. I also added a footnote explaining the dilemma and why I chose the solution I did. With one exception, the first comment of all the readers was: don’t call them autistics!! Also, I’m not a native English speaker, and my personal experience has been that English speakers tend to find the term ‘autistic’ very offensive, whereas in my native tongue it goes over more easily, so I liked the point about culture diversity and sensitivity.


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