Thursday, May 14, 2009

Guest Post - Person-First Terminology

Person-first terminology, also commonly referred to as person-first language, is currently utilized across many professional fields, from special education to health care to therapeutic settings to public school systems. But why is it important? What’s the big deal?

Person-first terminology is not quite how one of my college professors explained it to our Special Education 101 course. Her explanation? Instead of saying, “That Autistic girl’s name is Sally,” her explanation was to say “Sally is Autistic.” Close – oh so close! But still not quite the concept! Person-first terminology does not mean that you call a person by their name.

Thankfully, my music therapy professor explained it with much more accuracy.

Person-first terminology suggests we state phrases stressing the person (name or pronoun) first, followed by their disability or diagnosis.
  • “Matthew is a Downs kid” becomes “Matthew has Down Syndrome.”
  • “ He is ADHD” becomes “He has ADHD.”
By a simple grammatical change, the focus is shifted from the disability to the person, hence person-first. By utilizing person-first terminology, dehumanization is avoided. The person is not the disability that they might have.

Similarly, this can be compared to the movement to remove outdated words from our vocabulary that have since developed new and often offensive connotations. For example, the words idiot, retarded, imbecile, handicapped, and mongoloid were once more widely accepted. In modern times, these terms are usually considered derogatory. The Education for All Handicapped Children’s Act of 1975 has even been revised and given the name IDEA, or Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

While this movement in semantics means well, many differing points of view exist on the matter. Some prefer person-first terminology and find it politically correct and a little more dignifying, but some think that this effort takes away from their identity. For example, those involved in Deaf culture (with a capital D) sometimes feel that their deafness is not a disability at all but a mere trait. Many people with blindness and Autism feel the same way and do not mind being called “blind” or “Autistic.”

All in all, it comes down to what your patients / clients and their families prefer. This can become troublesome when switching terminology back and forth so as to earnestly avoid offending someone, but the effort is usually appreciated. Find out what your clients and employers prefer.

Hopefully this short introduction to person-first terminology will not only give the reader insight into a relevant concept, but perhaps it will leave the slightest thought in the back of your mind. As a therapist, educator, health care provider, or paraprofessional, how do you refer to your patients in your daily progress notes? What is your perception of your clients? How do you see them – as people with disabilities, or as disabilities who happen to be people?

Please post your thoughts and discussion questions in the comments section of this blog.

Helpful Links:

Nikki Belshe, MT-BC, NMT
Music Therapist – Board Certified
Neurologic Music Therapist
Longmont, CO


  1. really? calling a person by their name and not their sickness or disability, this is worth pointing out? i thought that was just how polite people handled themselves. guess not, oh well. sign of the times i guess.

  2. I might not have explained this well - here's an example that I hope clarifies! I just came across this article:

    In the second paragraph, it reads, "Tanner, their 8-year-old severely autistic son, wasn’t his usual hyperactive self."

    Person-first terminology would suggest saying, "Tanner, their 8-year old son with severe autism ..."

    Some find that saying "has" as opposed to "is" is less dehumanizing. It has less to do with a person's name or pronoun than it does the possession of HAVING a disability versus BEING disabled.

    Hope this helps! Thanks for bringing it to my attention that I should have clarified.

  3. A great deal of the diseases with which therapy-requiring individuals are afflicted are, in fact, dehumanizing. That's why it's so sad to see people in such removes them from a normal human existence. Autism IS dehumanizing. I don't see what good it does to name them before their's an issue of semantics and I think it wastes everybody's time in thinking about these things. There's too much political correctness going on in health care. We need to call things like they are and stop sugarcoating everything. A friend of mine is one of the best MR teachers I know, and guess what? She refers to her students as retards.....because that's what they are and they don't know the difference. What they do know is that there's a woman who loves and cares for them everyday, Monday thru Friday, nine months out of the year.....THAT's what matters.

    As long as sickness requires lifestyle modifications, people will ALWAYS be referred to and identified by their illness. People who survive cancer will ALWAYS be cancer survivors, no matter what else they do in life. Stephen Hawking will ALWAYS be the theoretical physicist with ALS. There's nothing inherently wrong with that. I just don't see any pragmatism in using person-first terminology.


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