What Is People-First Language?

There’s a movement in the disability community toward being more aware of our speech and to use People-First Language. But what exactly is People-First Language? I found a nice definition from The Arc – an organization that advocates for people with intellectual disabilities:

People-First Language emphasizes the person, not the disability. By placing the person first, the disability is no longer the primary, defining characteristic of an individual, but one of several aspects of the whole person. People-First Language is an objective way of acknowledging, communicating, and reporting on disabilities. It eliminates generalizations and stereotypes, by focusing on the person rather than the disability.

Disability is not the “problem.” For example, a person who wears glasses doesn’t say, “I have a problem seeing,” they say, “I wear/need glasses.” Similarly, a person who uses a wheelchair doesn’t say, “I have a problem walking,” they say, “I use/need a wheelchair.”

As you may have noticed from the above quote, People-First Language is most often used in conjunction with people with physical or mental disabilities; however, there is no reason not to use this language when discussing people with learning differences. I would like to see more emphasis on People-First Language when we talk about learning differences such as ADHD and dyslexia. It feels better to say that I am “a person with dyslexia” rather than “I’m dyslexic” or “I’m a dyslexic.”

This approach acknowledges the power words have on our students. If we describe a student as “an ADHD kid” or “a dyslexic,” it sounds as though this label represents everything about the child. When you use People-First Language, the issue you’re discussing seems like just another aspect of the student’s personality.

Below are some examples of preferred language:

People-First Language Preferred Expressions

Say… Instead of…
Child with learning differences Learning disabled child
Individual with ADHD ADHD kid
Person who has… Afflicted with, suffers from, victim of…
Child with dyslexia A dyslexic

What do you think about this approach to talking about learning differences? Do you have other examples of how we can modify our speech to better serve the LD community? Let us know in the comments!

  • Elizabeth Ross, M.A., SMARTS Media Manager