Skip to Content

What People First Language Is (& Why and When It’s WRONG)

What People First Language Is (& Why and When It’s WRONG)

Please Share

This is an essay about People First Language, explaining what it is, how it came to be, and how it has evolved.

There is an MP3 from my new podcast of me reading this post – scroll to the bottom for it. There is also a distraction-free PDF of this essay for you to download at the end.

What is “People First Language?”

People First Language is a movement that came out in the late 1980’s with various advocacy groups. It was a movement that essentially wanted to humanize people with disabilities, so that the mainstream would start to see us as real people. It set out to do so by nudging the mainstream into seeing people, rather than conditions, first.

I do not believe it was ever intended as some kind of rigid, hard core word law, and remember: when People First Language came out, the words, “crippled” and “handicapped” were still regularly used, as was “retarded” and to a lesser extent, “mongoloid.”

We’ve made great strides in our language over the past 30 years, and there has also been a powerful move forward in disability culture, disability pride and disability justice.

These strides in the disability arena mean that many of us in the disability community have reached around to embrace the totality of who we are. We are proud. Our bodies, minds, senses and emotions are leaping forward and navigating the world on this platform of disability.

In other words, we do what we do, we live our lives from our disabled bodies, and we like our lives. We like our bodies! We’re not all looking for a cure.

We Don’t All Want to Be Able-Bodied

I know most non-disabled people have been taught that those of us with disabilities long to be like them, but that’s simply not true. Non-disabled people have been fed a lie, and that is reflected back in this pervasive belief that the presence of disability in a life is a negative.

We want our language to reflect our pride in ourselves.

People First, a linguistic movement designed to help the non-disabled see the humanity in the disabled, has no place in a sphere in which disabled people feel intrinsic pride in who they are, and who identify with their disabilities. It has no place for the disabled when disability has become a part of our culture, our makeup, our breath.

Those of us who feel this way prefer to have our Identity First.

Identity First Language vs People First Language

This is where a person prefers to have their disability-first. It’s flipping the switch on People First. So, instead of using a People First term of “person on the Autism Spectrum,” in Identity First we say, “Autistic” or “Autistic person.”

Instead of using the People First term,  “person with deafness” we say, “deaf” or “Deaf,” depending on culture (“Big D” Deaf is someone who is from Deaf culture, uses ASL as their primary means of communication; “little d” deaf is someone who is from Hearing culture and does not necessarily use ASL).

Instead of using the People First term, “person with a disability,” you say, “disabled person.”

Is This Set In Stone?

No! This is not set in stone! You can never make hard and fast rules about what anyone should call themselves. The point here is that a lot of things have happened in the Disability community since People First language came out, and things have changed.

Some of us still want to use People First. Some of us want Identity First.

But NONE of us want to be told what we want by someone without a disability!

This might seem really achingly obvious, but people without a disability never have the right to tell us what to call ourselves.

If you have a disability, you get to choose what or how you want your disability addressed.

  • You want to say you have “special needs?” Gag, I hate that term, but you have a disability and you have the right to choose that.
  • You want to say you are “disabled?” Totally, no problem.
  • You want to say you are a “person with muscular dystrophy?” Got it.
  • You want to say you are “differently-abled?” – sigh.

if you do not have a disability, you emphatically to not have the right to tell someone with a disability how to talk about their disability

The point that I want to make here is that we who have disabilities prefer them clothed in various linguistic garments. And like the garments that we wear on our bodies, diversity in expression is right, natural and normal.

But if you do not have a disability, you emphatically to not have the right to tell someone with a disability how to talk about their disability.

This might be so obvious, but I can’t count the number of times either I myself or others from across the disability spectrum have been corrected in our speech by someone without a disability!

We’ve said that we prefer Identity First language and the able-bodied person has chastised us, telling us that we need to be referred to as a person first.

I mean, can you even imagine what that would look like if you swapped out lenses of culture?

If, instead of a person using a wheelchair and saying they preferred to be called “disabled” as they prefer Identify First Language, they were Fijian? And they said that rather than “person from Fiji,” they preferred to be called “Fijian” but were met with, “oh now, you need to be proud of being a person first!

So, we have got to understand and really get it that disability is not just a group or collection of conditions; it is indeed a culture, and it’s an identification.

It’s a way of life for a great many of us, and we like our lives.

Podcast and PDF

The podcast episode is below and the downloadable PDF is linked here and in button below (just click it: it will take you to Gumroad, where it will say “name a fair price” or something like that – feel free to put 0 in the box (and you can feel free to pay for it too – really, it’s all good and I won’t be hurt!). After you enter a number, it will take you to the next screen where you enter your email address for the download. I do not store your email address and I won’t bug you after – this is NOT a bait-and-switch thing where I say “free download” just to get your email address then harass you. NOPE! The system will then automatically send you the PDF or MP3 to download via your email).

Support My Work!

Please Share

Meriah
Meriah Nichols is a career counselor, teacher and blogger. Single mom to 3 (one with Down syndrome, one gifted 2E), she is also a cat-loving Trekkie who likes her coffee hot and black.
Meriah on EmailMeriah on FacebookMeriah on GoogleMeriah on InstagramMeriah on LinkedinMeriah on PinterestMeriah on TwitterMeriah on Youtube
image description: yellow and pink background with different colored bubbles floating around, pink speech bubble with yellow text that reads,
← Previous
You Ask, I Answer: What's the Deaf Experience Like?
image description: lion-looking cat lays in front of the camera and looks just past the camera. Text by the image reads,
Next →
Why I Want to Start a Cat Sanctuary Now

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Janice

Friday 21st of February 2020

So, if you have a child with Down syndrome, do you say, "My child has Down syndrome?" I don't know of a nice sounding identity first way to describe a person with Ds. (Downs child - gag!) But, beyond that, when someone has both Ds and autism, what do you think is the best way to describe this? I most often say that "He has Down syndrome and autism" or "autism and Down syndrome," depending on which is more relevant to a particular discussion. It gets wordy and awkward to say "He is autistic and has Down syndrome" or "He has Down syndrome and is autistic." I do sometimes use the more wordy ways when that better fits the discussion: "He is autistic but also has Down syndrome" or "He has Down syndrome, but he is also autistic." But, when I'm making a simple statement, I prefer to keep the language simple. Thoughts?

Meriah

Sunday 23rd of February 2020

Oh, I think any of those are fine! No matter how you try though, it's wordy

appreciative

Thursday 20th of February 2020

Great interpretive article but just had to point out there was a minor typo.

But if you do not have a disability, you emphatically to not have the right to tell someone with a disability how to talk about their disability.

Should be DO NOT instead of "to not."

Meriah

Thursday 20th of February 2020

thank you!

martin (not marty . . . *please*)

Friday 14th of February 2020

mariah, i just read your article and think you have made some very strong . . . and, as you've indicated, obvious points.

i think the mini-discussion about Wild Rose highlights the overall point of your post, which i believe is that human beings at large use words to communicate and sometimes we do it poorly. there are at once two conflicting issues, which are difficult to balance out - people have a need to communicate with those they do not know or have not met; and people have a desire to be addressed in a way that, at the very least, does not offend them and at the best aligns with how the recipient views themselves in the world.

throwing a wrench into that proverbial works is the most salient point (for me) that rises in your post - not every person matching a particular set of attributes finds comfort, solace or truth in the same set of terms. case in point, i have a friend whom my social upbringing had always informed me was african-american, just as i am irish-american. we had a discussion one evening and he presented me with a fervent argument for why he . . . and everyone like him, in his opinion . . . is black. plain and simple. and yet, just the other day i heard that february is no longer "black history month" but is now "african american history month".

so, in light of this background and your short iterative exercise on how those with disabilities would like to be addressed, and really the bigger question for me, how to address communities in very general, non-personal terms, when the members of many communities would likely never agree on how they would prefer to be addressed collectively? in your brief example, which plays out over and over in every space in our culture, you have provided four possibilities for one community.

it might sound as though i am giving up. i am most emphatically not. my hope is that people in general will come to be able to tell the difference between language used with malice, and language used by someone they've just met for the first time; between language used to demean and language used as a collective reference; between language used to apply bias-based discrimination and language used to communicate thought between human beings.

respectfully submitted ,

Michael Theobald

Saturday 27th of April 2019

At a major cinema in London I read on the screen before the subtitled film (Wild Rose) began the words: 'Subtitled for the hearing impaired'. No mention of people... and there is a host of people with a neadurable hearing loss who do not like being labelled 'impaired'!

Mark

Friday 28th of June 2019

Could just as easily describe the film as "subtitled" pr "subtitled version". Omitting the "for whoever" bit. Instead allowing cinema customers to make their own decisions about what they want to watch.

Meriah

Sunday 28th of April 2019

Yeah... sigh. I personally don't care. I use "hearing impaired" all over the place, but I also know a lot of people who hate the term

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.