About person-first language



Person-first language has different connotations for different groups. Some groups prefer it; others find it offensive. It’s not inherently good or bad, in itself, but it’s taken on strong associations because of ways it’s been used.

The most important thing is what you mean, and people should make an effort to understand what people actually mean rather than focusing primarily on the words they’re using to say it.

That said, it’s harder for people to know what you mean if you use language that is normally used primarily by people who don’t respect them.

With that in mind, here’s what I think I know about person-first language:

Saying “a person with a disability” is usually not regarded as offensive. Saying “a disabled person” is sometimes regarded as offensive, but it’s not as likely to cause offense as some other things. Sometimes people shorten this to PWD. That’s not rude, but it might not be understood.

Many autistic self-advocates are offended by “person with autism”. Many parent-centered organizations are offended by “autistic person”. Telling an autistic person that they should be using person-first language is *extremely* offensive, because it’s suggesting that you are either only aware of the perspective of parent groups or that you think the views of parent groups are more important than the views of autistic people.

Calling a deaf person a “person with deafness” or a “person with a hearing impairment” is likely to be regarded as extremely offensive — especially if the person you’re referring to identifies as Deaf. (I don’t know how to explain the difference; I very much hope someone reading this does.)

“Retarded” and “Person with mental retardation” are both offensive, because they have an extensive history of being used to dehumanize people. Using person-first language doesn’t fix that. “Retard” is *extremely* offensive, because it’s almost *always* used in dehumanizing ways. 

People with certain types of mobility disabilities often prefer person-first language, but I don’t know enough about this to explain it.

For sexual orientation, hardly anyone uses person-first language, but it doesn’t have as strong a connotation. It’s not offensive to call someone gay, or a gay person. It’d be a bit weird to call someone a person with gayness, and a bit rude to say “a person who happens to be gay” or “a person who is gay”, but it’s not really the same kind of thing exactly.

For race it’s more complicated than I know how to explain but: using noun forms is almost always considered rude. (Eg: don’t call people “blacks” or “whites”). Using person-first language is *sometimes* ok, and sometimes likely to be offensive, and I’m not sure how to explain which is which, except that you shouldn’t say “person with *ness” as a way of referring to race.

I agree SO STRONGLY with all of this, but I wanted to respond to the parts I highlighted.

Lowercase-d deaf means that the person refers to their deafness more as a diagnosis.

Capital-D Deaf means that person associates themselves with the Deaf community and the Deaf culture. Most often that person’s language is not English (or the other ‘native’ languages) but American Sign Language (in the USA and Canada, but the same with the equivalent elsewhere).

Please realize this and take into account that when someone does something dumb or there is something you don’t like, there are literally thousands of words for you to chose to describe the situation. DON’T use ‘retarded.’

For this part, it varies with who you are talking to. IF in a friendship, relationship, or into a conversation about someone’s physical disability (NOT: “Heeeey, wuts rong wit ur legggz?!?!111”) ask them politely how they feel about the topic. If they associate themselves as DISABLED, do NOT refer to them as ‘physically handicapped,’ ‘differently abled,’ or’ handicapable.’ EVER.

In ALL situations, you go with what the person is comfortable with. Don’t assume all people with the same condition feel the same about it. Don’t push your ideas of their condition onto them. Simply morph your wording to the setting and peopel you’re with and their preferences.

First - thanks for writing this. The bolded part especially.

Second – I don’t think “find out individual people’s preferred terms and use them” is always such great advice, because a lot of people find being asked that question invasive, and also because some people *can’t* actually reliably keep track of preferences with that degree of complexity.

And meanwhile, the default language people who can choose which defaults to use matters, because some types of language are much more likely to cause offense than others. You’re not so likely to encounter people who prefer to be called “differently abled” or “handicapable”, for instance, so it’s a good idea to default to not saying those things.