A woman interacting

Julia Hood, Ph.D., LP, BCBA-D, NCSP

“Person-first language is used to speak appropriately and respectfully about an individual with a disability.” – Centers for Disease Control

The intent of using person-first language is to convey respect.  Instead of saying someone is schizophrenic, you would say the individual has schizophrenia.  The purpose of using this type of language is to communicate that the diagnosis does not define the person, it’s only one part of who they are.  Using person-first language does just that, it puts the person first and the diagnosis second.  This type of language describes a diagnosis the person has rather than defines who the person is.  While this is the common terminology used in the behavioral health field, there is another way to communicate about people with disabilities that some people, particularly those with certain diagnoses prefer.

Identity first language refers to the diagnosis first, for example autistic, blind, deaf.  There are a number of individuals with disabilities who prefer identity-first language and are offended by person-first language.  Some people prefer to refer to themselves as autistic or deaf.   They feel that their diagnosis is a strength and an inherent trait, therefore it does define them in a lot of ways.  They find the terms “person with autism” or “hearing impaired” offensive because they feel it infers the diagnosis is a negative thing and something that needs to be fixed or cured but they don’t see their diagnosis that way.

It can be confusing to know what terminology to use.  It is complicated even more by the fact that many are offended by their non-preferred terminology.  So, you can use person-first language to show respect, but actually offend people.  Vice versa, many are offended by the use of identity-first language.  There are multiple articles, blogs, and YouTube videos that are arguing in favor of one or the other.  I have been in meetings that have become very confrontational because of the verbiage being used by one person significantly offended another.

So do you use person-first or identity-first language?

The answer, as you might suspect, is not crystal clear.  It depends.  If you are using it to refer to an individual and have the ability to ask them what their preference is, then you can ask and use their preferred language.  If you are referring to a group of individuals or an individual who you don’t have the opportunity or ability to ask, it gets a little more complicated.  I don’t know that there is a right answer that won’t end up causing offense to someone else.  I, personally, default to the person-first language, but I’m sure I’ve offended some people when speaking about certain diagnoses.  If I am speaking in a group, I try to preface that I use person-first language and it is not intended to offend anyone, but that it is meant to be a respectful way to talk about the diagnosis.  I feel at least that way I have communicated that there is no malicious intent in my communication.  When speaking to a person with a particular diagnosis or to a group about a particular diagnosis, it is important to gauge your audience as best you can and try to convey respect as much as possible.

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