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People-First Language

People-First Language


The easiest way to explain what "people-first" language is might be to examine what it is not. We can do this by considering commonly accepted uses of titles that we may hear every day-usages such as "Coach Pat" or "Doctor Bob." Putting a person's title in front of his or her name may effectively convey what his or her vocation is. However, this also tends to conjure up a preconceived image of what that person looks and acts like. Making such assumptions is essential if we are to organize our thoughts and our world- and it may be acceptable and relatively innocuous under most circumstances. Unfortunately, though, labeling people in this way is not always so harmless.

Consider, for example, the historical example of Typhoid Mary. This moniker has forever defined Mary in people's minds as a carrier of typhoid, and many-whether rightly or wrongly-may imagine that she was a woman with open weeping sores who infected millions. But suppose people-first language is used instead to describe Mary. We might say that Mary was an Irish immigrant cook, a well-appearing woman with a subclinical typhoid illness who in the early 1900s accidentally caused multiple outbreaks of typhoid fever in New York City. Obviously, "Mary" and "typhoid" are still linked, but one does not define the other.

Fast forward to the present and the rapid growth both of interest in medical diseases and of multiple media outlets that distill complex topics into 30-second sound bytes. The resulting economy of words does not favor the use of descriptive or people-first language. Hence, when medical topics such as autism, diabetes, or cancer are discussed, people tend to lump the disease and the person together, thereby diluting the importance of the person. Terms such as "autistic community," "diabetic child," or even "cancer patient" inseparably conflate the disease and the person or group.

Consider the following 3 pairs of sentences. The first sentence in each pair-always the shorter of the 2-is not in people-first language; the second sentence is in people-first language.

Example 1 (Autistic Amy)

A. Autistic children like Amy can be diagnosed as early as 18 months.

B. Amy is a child in whom autism was diagnosed early-as is frequently the case with this disorder, which is sometimes diagnosed as early as age 18 months. (people-first language)


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