People-first language is a type of linguistic prescription in English. It aims to avoid perceived and subconscious dehumanization when discussing people with disabilities and is sometimes referred to as a type of disability etiquette. People-first language can also be applied to any group that is defined by a condition rather than as a people: for example, "people who live on the street" rather than "homeless."
The basic idea is to use a sentence structure that names the person first and the condition second, for example "people with disabilities" rather than "disabled people" or "disabled", in order to emphasize that "they are people first". Because English syntax normally places adjectives before nouns, it becomes necessary to insert relative clauses, replacing, e.g., "asthmatic person" with "a person who has asthma." Furthermore, the use of to be is deprecated in favor of using to have.
By using such a sentence structure, the speaker articulates the idea of a disability as a secondary attribute, not a characteristic of a person's identity. Critics of this rationale point out that separating the "person" from the "trait" implies that the trait is inherently bad or "less than", and thus dehumanizes people with disabilities.
The term people-first language first appears in 1988 as recommended by advocacy groups in the United States. The usage has been widely adopted by speech-language pathologists and researchers, with 'person who stutters' (PWS) replacing 'stutterer'.
The most common alternative to person-first language is usually called identity-first language, as it places the identifying condition before the personal term. For example, while someone who prefers person-first language might ask to be called a "person with autism", someone who prefers identity-first language would ask to be called an "autistic person". There is no common term for use of identifying conditions as nouns, but it is not usually preferred apart from select communities, such as dwarfs.
The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis is the basis for ideologically motivated linguistic prescriptivism. The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis states that language use significantly shapes perceptions of the world and forms ideological preconceptions.
In the case of people-first language, preconceptions judged to be negative allegedly arise from placing the name of the condition before the term "person" or "people". Proponents of people-first language argue that this places an undue focus on the condition which distracts from the humanity of the members of the community of people with the condition.
Critics have objected that people-first language is awkward, repetitive and makes for tiresome writing and reading. C. Edwin Vaughan, a sociologist and longtime activist for the blind, argues that since "in common usage positive pronouns usually precede nouns", "the awkwardness of the preferred language focuses on the disability in a new and potentially negative way". Thus, according to Vaughan, it only serves to "focus on disability in an ungainly new way" and "calls attention to a person as having some type of 'marred identity'" in terms of Erving Goffman's theory of identity.
The National Federation of the Blind adopted a resolution in 1993 condemning people-first language. The resolution dismissed the notion that "the word 'person' must invariably precede the word 'blind' to emphasize the fact that a blind person is first and foremost a person" as "totally unacceptable and pernicious" and resulting in the exact opposite of its purported aim, since "it is overly defensive, implies shame instead of true equality, and portrays the blind as touchy and belligerent".
In Deaf culture, person-first language has long been rejected. Instead, Deaf culture uses Deaf-first language since being culturally deaf is a source of positive identity and pride. Correct terms to use for this group would be "Deaf person" or "hard of hearing person". The phrase "hearing impaired" is not acceptable to most Deaf or hard of hearing people because it emphasizes what they cannot do.
Autism activist Jim Sinclair rejects person-first language, on the grounds that saying "person with autism" suggests that autism can be separated from the person. Other advocacy groups and organizations such as Autism Speaks, The Arc and Disability Is Natural support using people-first language. However, identity-first language is preferred by many autistic people and organizations run by them.
- BusinessWeek (letter to the editor), Issues 3059–3062, 1988 ; Supportive housing needs of elderly and disabled persons: hearing before the Subcommittee on Housing and Urban Affairs of the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, United States Senate, One Hundred First Congress, first session on S. 566 ... the National Affordable Housing Act, June 2, 1989, Volumes 22–23: "All references to 'handicapped individuals' in the Act must be changed to 'people with disabilities'" – We join with many of our fellow advocacy organizations in emphasizing the importance of using 'people first' language throughout the Act."
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- Vaughan, C. Edwin (1997). "People-First Language: An Unholy Crusade". National Federation of the Blind.
- Jernigan, Kenneth (March 2009). "The Pitfalls of Political Correctness: Euphemisms Excoriated". Braille Monitor 52 (3). "Be it resolved by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled in the city of Dallas, Texas, this 9th day of July, 1993, that the following statement of policy be adopted: We believe that it is respectable to be blind, and although we have no particular pride in the fact of our blindness, neither do we have any shame in it. To the extent that euphemisms are used to convey any other concept or image, we deplore such use. We can make our own way in the world on equal terms with others, and we intend to do it."
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