What Is…Person-First Language?

Some terms are criticized as social justice jargon. However, many of these terms are important to know about and understand. One such term is person-first language.

Person-first language puts a person before the label, which is often a diagnosis of a disability or a chronic illness. This stands in contrast with what one may call identity-first language, which puts the identity before the person without necessarily denying someone their personhood.

To show an example of how person-first language works (especially in contrast to identity-first language), my friend Joe has a learning disability.[1] When you use person-first language, you are talking about “Joe, who has a learning disability.” In contrast, with identity-first language, you are talking about “my learning-disabled friend Joe.” Here, the person-first language puts Joe before his label of having a learning disability, while the identity-first language puts his learning disability before his name.

The person-centered nature of person-first language (which I know sounds redundant) is why it is so popular among some. However, I offer a huge caveat: not everybody, even in the disability or chronic illness communities, prefers person-first language. As such, while it may be favored by some (including Joe, by the way), you shouldn’t assume that just because one friend with a chronic illness or a disability prefers person-first language means all people with chronic illnesses or disabilities prefer it.[2] In fact, since I’ve started getting more active in blogging and on social media, I’ve known some chronic illness and disability advocates who vocally express their desire not to use person-first language for them, for various reasons.

So, then, what should we do if some people prefer person-first language while others do not? Personally, I would strongly advocate listening to and prioritizing the desires of the individual you are with. In the case of my friend Joe, prioritizing the desires of the individual I am with means using person-first language. For a few of the aforementioned bloggers and social media people I have learned from, it might involve using something that’s not person-first language. But regardless of what those preferences are, what is important is to listen to the preferences of the family member, friend, coworker, or acquaintance (and if you’re not sure, asking that person). After all, it is that person who has experience with the disability or chronic illness they have, and it seems wisest to defer to the language we use for the person with that experience instead of imposing our own wishes and ideas upon others.

[1] Don’t worry; I got my friend’s permission to use his name here.

[2] Also, just as a general principle, I urge against the notion of thinking that any one person represents an entire group, whether that group is based on disability, race, religion, gender identity, or anything else.