Why Person-First Language Matters

More alike than different!

More alike than different!

Person-first language is just what it sounds like..you put the person first. Whether it is stated or understood, just remember that the person you are speaking of needs to be regarded as an individual, not a developmental, congenital, or mental health diagnosis or socioeconomic status. Since this blog is of course, largely about raising a child with Down Syndrome, that is where I will go for this example. Please remember, though, that person-first language is something that ALL people deserve. Don’t talk about people like they are objects or all the same. For those than whine about “Why do we always have to be PC (politically correct), this is for YOU:

Scenario: (and yes this has really happened. To us. This week in fact. ) A lady checking my son into a medical facility for a routine exam asks, among other questions “Is he a Down?” It took me off-guard as at this facility everyone has either waited for me to bring it up (which I don’t really find necessary, especially if you are an MD or nurse-you probably have the experience to pick up on features of Down Syndrome. It doesn’t bother me personally.) or others have just asked “Does he have Down Syndrome?” But that isn’t what this lady asked. While I was trying to figure out if that is in fact what she said, I didn’t know what to say because no one has regarded us in this way. She was very nice and oohed and ahhed over how cute Ethan was, so I don’t believe she said it to be rude or label him. IF she said something just overtly offensive I would have corrected her on the spot and gotten upset too probably, but it was a nice lady just nOT using person-first language. The moment passed and before I knew it we were moving onto the waiting room and I just felt…funny.

See, I had already learned in school to get my undergraduate in Early Childhood Education that you must use “person-first language”. I saw that it made sense but above all, I tend to just agree to call people whatever they want to be called that makes them feel respected because I am an empathetic person; I mean, I even became a therapist before my current stay-at-home-mom gig. So some may think “Well, Natalie, in therapist world, everyone is careful with their words and its all Kum-Ba-Ya and positive affirmations.” That is only kind of true, but besides that point is that now that I am a parent of a kid who “has a label”, I see the importance of person-first language SO much more. So why did it upset me today, or make me “feel funny” to be asked “Is he a Down?” I had to ask myself those questions this afternoon because I only thought about the “r-word” being used, not so much this, and definitely not by a medical professional.


1) IT DOESN’T LEAVE ROOM FOR THE PERSON TO BE ANYTHING ELSE, FROM YOUR WORDS’ CONNOTATION: It bothers me because when say “is he” or “he is”..it leaves no room for anything else..meaning he is labeled as just that. He IS Down Syndrome. He’s a “Down’s Kid.” He’s “Downs.” So does that mean he is that and nothing else? You can only be a “Down” or a “Normal?” What sort of images are conjured up when you hear this? For me, it made me think of a ton of kids on one side of a line with a huge sign in the middle of them “Down.” And on the other side of the line “Normal.” It is just so final. Such labeling of people. Some of you are rolling your eyes at me possibly, so lets look at person first language and see how that compares…”Does he have Down Syndrome?” …I don’t know about you, but now I just see my kid again…and Down Syndrome on a long checklist of things that may or may not pertain to him. He is a PERSON again!

2)TRY IT WITH SOME OTHER EXAMPLES TAKING OUT THE PERSON-FIRST LANGUAGE AND SEE HOW IT SOUNDS: “Is she a schizophrenic?” or even “Is she schizo?” (because that is about how much effort the lady took on asking about my son…nice lady, but just saying…) Okay and what about “He an autistic?” There may be other examples you are coming up with in your head right now and you think they don’t really sound offensive to you, or maybe even anyone you know. But you know what? That doesn’t really matter. If it is not considered respectful to people who have the diagnosis or have kids in their family with a diagnosis, then you should go with whatever they consider respectful. Yes EVEN if it changes every few years.

3) I’M NOT GOING TO JUMP DOWN YOUR THROAT IF YOU HAVE GOOD INTENTIONS. AND EVEN IF YOU DON’T HAVE GOOD INTENTIONS, YOU MAY BE SPARED THE MAMMA TONGUE-LASHING. MAYBE. Some of you may be shuddering that you have already said some of these things to me or someone else such as “the Down’s kid” and think we need to give some grace. We DO, I promise. I can usually tell the difference between being unaware and being lazy. I understand that not everyone had “person-first language” drilled into their heads in college. That’s why I share it now, especially so people who interface with families everyday in the medical field or otherwise will know how it is perceived, or can be. I will also say I don’t think too much of it when other people say things like that, but I expected more knowledge about person-first language at medical facilities. Some have pointed out to me that it may not be fair or at least not realistic to expect medical professionals to actually know how to refer to people with Down Syndrome or other disabilities and have outdated information because it has been awhile since they have been in school. Things do change; that is why “handicapped” is no longer used unless in reference to a handicap sticker (although that may come along with the dying out of that word. Interesting trivia-I learned from a textbook that “handicapped” actually was derived from having “hand in cap”, meaning those who had disabilities had to beg for money holding out their hats for donations. So you can see how that was not a very welcome term once people with disabilities were given a little more rights and respect. There are things than people don’t ever consider UNLESS they have a disability, have a child with a disability, or some other personal connection.

Back to the medical professionals, though: I sympathize with being in the dark on the up-to-date terms, which is why I write this blog post and encourage teachers, therapists, doctors, nurses, etc. to share it with their co-workers. Whoever has a hand in choosing professional development courses, consider including a topic like this so people feel more valued and listen to the rest of what you have to say. Honestly, some people may even question if you have up-to-date medical information if you do not have up-to-date information on addressing your patients, clients, etc. as people. I do not say that vindictively, just thoughtfully. I know you work hard and care for your patients and clients. This is just another way to continue that trend, from the perspective of a parent.

4) ALL PEOPLE IN THE DOWN SYNDROME OR OTHER DISABILITY COMMUNITIES ARE NOT THE SAME, SO GO WITH THE MOST CONSERVATIVE PERSON’S TERM TO AVOID MAKING PEOPLE FEEL LABELED. You may say, “Well cousin so-and-so and my co-worker have kids with Down Syndrome, and it doesn’t bother them. I guess that means its okay to say “Downs Kid” anyway. Or, “well, my friend throws around the word ‘retard’ when joking just as a casual term, so I think its okay that I say it around anyone. Why should I change how I talk?” On the principle of person-first language, you go with whoever has the most conservative or what you might call “most sensitive” point of view. It is just a few words. Many times we get upset over lack of person-first langauge because want our kids to hear language that exemplifies what they CAN do, not that they are the same as all other kids with the same disability. Then they hear what textbooks or people say someone with Down Syndrome is “supposed to” be like and could think of themselves as the label. You can apply this to all kinds of labels.

So, there you go. Your justification for why you should use person-first-language and be “PC.” 😉

PS- We say “typical kids” or “typical peers” rather than “normal” when regarding children who do not have Down Syndrome. Ex:(what we would not say: “Does he have any classes with normal kids?” BETTER way to say it would be “Does he have any classes with typical children?” Just some bonus anti-labeling etiquette for you. 😉 Thanks for reading!


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