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Person First Language (PFL)

What is Person-first language? 

Person-first language is encouraged in a wide variety of contexts to avoid defining someone solely by their disability or condition. But not everyone prefers this language. Others prefer identity-first language to emphasise a part of their identity that they consider very important. Identity-first language is not often used outside of the disabled community and opinions are still mixed as to whether this is the best use of language. 


Who prefers person-first language? 

The American Psychological Association (APA) advocates the use of person-first language (e.g., people with disabilities) to refer to individuals with disabilities in daily discourse and to reduce bias in psychological writing. Disability culture advocates and disability studies scholars have challenged the rationale for and implications of exclusive person-first language use, promoting use of identity-first language.   

Person-first language is preferred in many contexts, particularly medical care. They prefer to view the person in a more wholistic way and not have their disability or condition define them. However, individual preferences around identity-first versus person-first language vary widely. The optimal approach is to respect people’s choices about the language they choose for themselves. 


What is the problem with person-first language? 

Some people argue that having the disability at the forefront of one’s identity destigmatises the disability. Having a disability is not the only important aspect of a person, but it is no less important than a person’s gender identity, race, sexuality, religion or any other part of who they are.   

There are also some downsides to person-first language. For example, this language treats having a disability similar to having an illness or disease. A diagnosis of autism for example, is not the same as being diagnosed with cancer. Therefore, some argue that this type of language should not be used for disabilities. Because disabilities are not contagious or life threatening the same way an illness or disease might be, people do not need to be cured of a disability and for this reason, some researchers argue that a person cannot be separated from their disability. In this case, they may prefer identity-first language. But again, it all comes down to personal preference. No two individuals will experience a disability in the same way, and this means that their choice to identify in a particular way should be respected.  



When it comes to person-first language, there are those who strongly advocate for its use. On the other hand, there are people who feel identity-first language is better suited to their disability. There is no universal agreement by researchers as to which way is the ‘correct’ way to refer to disabilities. The best thing we can do to be inclusive of everyone is to ask the person or community we are referring to and then commit to respecting their choice. 

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