The ways in which educators refer to and discuss their students has a profound impact not only on children’s view of themselves, but also on others’ view of them. Person first language, or people first language acknowledges their value as a person, while recognizing their disabilities as secondary to their identities as people.
What Is Person First Language?
Person First language or People First Language (PFL) prioritizes the personhood of the people rather than their identity.
Using Identity First Language reinforces the labels placed on individuals rather than their status as people. For example, if we refer to students with Down Syndrome as “Down’s children,” we place the focus on the syndrome rather than the children themselves.
Semantic scholars like J. Dan Rothwell argue that identify-first language reinforces the labels we place upon people, adding attention and weight to that identity. Since disability identities are already stigmatized, person-first language is important to reframing how we talk and think about children with disabilities.
But why is this important?
PFL Elevates a Student’s Sense of Self
Kathie Snowe, founder of Disability is Natural, argues that using PFL is key to helping students gain a sense of self. When students are described primarily by their differences, they are essentially stripped of other important aspects of their identities. Julie the seventh grader, the athlete, the friend, the daughter, the lover of drawing and painting, for instance, is erased when she is described solely as the “dyslexic child” by the adults in her life. Hypothetical Julie is a unique individual with interests and abilities just like any child, and identity-first language can exclude her from this reality.
It is important to remember, however, that there are no hard-and-fast rules about person-first language and that the child’s preference takes priority. For example, many deaf people prefer Identity First Language, as being deaf is such a major part of their identity, and they wish to remind others that deafness is not a deficit. The same is true for many people diagnosed with autism. Healthcare journalist Tara Haelle reminds readers that educators must respect and prioritize their students’ preferences and view of themselves. Inherent here is the goal of destigmatizing the labels associated with disability.
PFL Contributes to Maintaining an Inclusive Environment
The use of PFL creates a more inclusive school environment and helps students belong. It is considered so crucial to creating inclusive classrooms that the Centers for Disease Control call PFL a key diversity and inclusion strategy and offer a helpful resource.
In addition, the State of Maine requires educators to demonstrate knowledge of and competency in PFL to qualify for the Maine Inclusion Credential, a series of competencies to aid practitioners in building the skills, knowledge and attitudes needed to create an inclusive and safe environment for all children.
Person First Language is just one of many ways to increase students’ self-efficacy and foster a climate of inclusion in schools. It is also one of the easiest changes to make. Simply prioritizing personhood can change the way students think about themselves, as well as how others see them.
Educators at every level have a responsibility to destigmatize the labels associated with disability, and using language that is sensitive to students’ preferences is an excellent way to start.