How to use People-first Language

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During my schoolgirl days I had briefly learned about People-first language through some of the student mentoring programs I was involved in. It wasn’t until I got trained as a volunteer at High Hopes Therapeutic Riding that People-first language came back into my life and meant so much more.

Basically, People-first is a method of speaking about others without labeling them.

Because I was being trained to work with riders of different abilities, some with medical issues, it was not only important that we not spew out our best guess of a diagnosis as that is harmful not only to the rider and their family’s feelings, but also potentially illegal, implying medical records were not kept confidential.

We learned if there is a specific facet of a rider that the other volunteers need to know about, to use People-first language. The example given to us in training was, “Instead of saying “the blind boy”, you can say, “the boy who is blind”.”

This separates the need-to-know medical information from the actual person. In the example, being blind isn’t who the boy is, it’s not the main part of him, it is simply one attribute which may be necessary to point out. The reason being, so we can count out strides or give an auditory signal when it’s time for him to steer the horse around a corner in the rectangular riding arena to prevent an accident.

It is human nature to categorize everything in order to make sense of our world. It speeds up processing and helps us make quicker decisions and anticipate what to expect. Still, as humans, it is significantly important to be sensitive about labeling others who may be different.

The most obvious examples are people who are dis- or differently-abled, people of  different skin hues, people with various sexual preferences, and so on.

But how about our acquaintances, neighbors, and community members we are inclined to know a little more about? Like the slut who works at the bank, or the hobo at the intersection, or the cop’s daughter on the hackey-sack team? Hmm, with labels like those, good luck making friends.

Some labels are great, if you’re beautiful, brilliant, and rich. But most people aren’t, and even the most innocuous descriptor can feel back-handed if it hits you just right. Sometimes even seemingly positive labels can really suck the wind out of a person’s sails.

For example, perhaps you are labeled as smart. Normally, this is desirable! But that is the only label you hear. “Get ready to use big words, I’m inviting my smart friend!” “Here comes my smart son; ask him about school.” “You’re too smart for me.” “You’re too smart to do that job.”  “Ha, I thought you were smart!” You just may be so sick of people assuming you have no friends, and if you do they are weird and nerdy and play the trombone and World of Warcraft and plan their next Model UN speech, and all you do is study and you make no mistakes and you know you are perfect and you’ve  never been kissed and you dress a certain way and have your head up your ass with snobbery, snootery, elitism, meritism, no real grasp of the real world or real people, etc…Isn’t being smart just one part of who you are? Maybe you even appreciate being smart,  but you also like dirt biking, reptiles, and tap dancing. You’re a whole person; why does only one facet have to shine through?

Everyone wants to be included and feel a connection to other people. Even the woman with green hair and tattoos on her face. She probably has other friends with vibrantly colored hair and visible tattoos, but I bet she has a lot of friends and family without them. Can’t we have friends who are both alike to us (vegans, blondes, Trekkies) and friends who are different? But can’t we also try a little harder not to make our different friends feel that much more different? Don’t we owe it to our fellow human beings to do our best to make them feel included and similar to us in some way?

Now, I’m not saying let’s stop calling everyone anything and to temper our tongues and walk on eggshells and censor every word we speak. I’m just trying to give extreme examples and say, hey, that slut is actually a girl with family members who care about her, who works an honest job, who walks her dog regularly, and deserves some decency. Next time, try calling her a girl or woman, and use your discretion before adding that she is reportedly generous with her erotic charms.

Consider trying out People-first language, not just with the “typical” groups of people you might think of, but with every person. Put the person first, then, if you must, their most significant attribute per the context. I think that by being aware of People-first language, we can make everyone feel more welcomed, more comfortable, and give those with differences hope that they can change if they want to, or if they can’t, that they will be accepted as none other than a human being.

It is interesting to note, however, that certain advocacy groups actually reject People-first language.

From what I understand, in mainstream Deaf culture, people prefer to be called Deaf, because being Deaf is just another way to experience life and is not considered a disability. It is not considered a negative label, and therefore Deaf culture doesn’t feel that they are being labeled, or labeled potentially negatively in the first place. Calling someone Deaf in this sense seems to simply raise awareness and make it known that hey, there are Deaf people all over the place and they lead totally normal and fulfilling lives. It’s just another way. I can agree with this logic; it’s kind of like saying “that man” rather than “that person who is male”. Makes sense.

Members of a different life experience, the autism rights movement, also share this outlook. To them, being autistic, or being called autistic, is appropriate. They reject People-first language on the basis that it implies that the autism is separate from the person, or the person’s personality. I get this. I think autism is simply another way to experience our world, and it’s not bad or a disease, especially in the case of high-functioning autistic people.

Revered autistic author Temple Grandin said, “If I could snap my fingers and be nonautistic, I would not. Autism is part of what I am…I am different, but not less.”

However, because the spectrum is so wide, and every person determined to have autism is different, with some people, but of course not with everyone who is autistic, there can be a pattern of co-morbid disorders and/or negative differences that I think un-enlightened non-autistic people might think all autistic people have that could make autism seem negative. It is for this reason, I believe if high-functioning autistic people want to be called autistic, they can help non-autistics by making their preference known. However, if you are encountering the family of a low-functioning person with autism (or autistic person), I’d say wait and see what wordage they drop, or just be very sensitive and ask! I think families would rather have someone ask than say something disagreeable to their preference.

Obviously, I’m sure there are many Deaf people and autistic people who do prefer People-first language. I suppose all you can do is your best and get to know them and how they would like their life experience referred to, if the topic arises.

Basically, I believe all people should have the right to label or not label themselves, and accept or reject labels, as they feel fit. This just goes to show how important individual preferences are, but that we should err on the side of being respectful and sensitive to those we categorize as different from ourselves.

If you are being labeled or not labeled and it makes you angry or uncomfortable, make the labeler aware of your preference. Users of People-first language are doing our best here, people!

It is with this that we must scrutinize the Golden Rule (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you) and perhaps trade up for the Platinum Rule: “Treat others the way they want to be treated.”

If you want to learn more, the most unbiased resource I can recommend is Wikipedia: People First Language.

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