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Person-First Language: How to Use It and Why It Matters

Jun 22nd, 2023 | by Kayla Darden, PT, DPT

Kayla Darden, PT, DPT

June 22nd, 2023

What is Person-First Language? 

Person-first language is a type of linguist prescription that puts a person before a diagnosis.

The goal of person-first language is to acknowledge and highlight the person as an individual rather than highlighting their difficulty or medical diagnosis.

Why Do We Want to Use Person-First Language?

We want to remember to utilize person-first language because we want to praise the individual for what they are doing and see them for who they are instead of seeing their diagnosis first. Our kids are all unique beings with their own personalities, styles, and preferences for everything, and we want to consider that during our interactions.

Person-First Language vs. the “Medical Model”

Now, the concept of person-first language may seem a bit contradictory as sometimes you may hear your therapist ask if there’s a diagnosis for your child. Person-first language is different from what we call the “medical model” where the diagnosis or disability is placed prior to the individual. You tend to find this in medical offices – not necessarily wrong, but the focus is on the diagnosis and how to treat or provide care for the individual. This provides the therapist with a general idea of progression or treatment types that are typically effective for that specific group of children with a particular diagnosis.

Person-First Language Examples

What NOT to say:What to say instead:
• Low-functioning or high-functioning• Person with high support needs
• Mentally challenged• Neurodivergent
• Mentally handicapped• Person with an intellectual disability / intellectually disabled
• Special needs• ___ is disabled
• Normal / regular• Neurotypical / non-disabled

An Exception: Person-First Language for Autism

One of the more recent deviations that are considered appropriate is using the terms “child/person with autism” or “autistic person.” While autism spectrum disorder is a specific diagnosis, it can also be classified slightly differently from other diagnoses as there is a growing movement about Autism being more related to the individual’s personality and individuality. This is in line with the belief that Autistic people are non-disabled but that they view the world through different lenses and have different ways of interpreting the world – just like everyone has their own lenses and views of the world. Taking this interpretation of autism allows the two terms above to be interchangeable as you still see the individual first.

Ask the Individual How They Prefer to Be Identified

While the exact language of person-first terminology and various other specifics are always changing, as our world and social environment change, it is always best to start with person-first terminology and ask the individual how they prefer to be identified.

Find Additional Resources in the NAPA Blog:

About the Author

Kayla Darden received her DPT from USC and is based at the NAPA Center in Los Angeles. She’s always had a heart for working with kids and loves figuring out the best way to motivate the little ones! When not at the clinic, she is either reading a book, snuggling with her cats, or trying a new cooking recipe with her fiancée.

About NAPA Center

At NAPA, we take an individualized approach to pediatric therapy because we understand that each child is unique with very specific needs. For this reason, no two therapeutic programs are alike. If your child needs our services, we will work closely with you to select the best therapies for them, creating a customized program specific to your child’s needs and your family’s goals. Let your child’s journey begin today by contacting us to learn more.

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