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What is Person-First Language? 

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

Kayla Darden, PT, DPT

June 22nd, 2023

What is Person-First Language? 

The official definition of person-first language, according to Google, is “a type of linguist prescription which puts a person before a diagnosis.” This concept is different from what we call the “medical model” where the diagnosis or disability is placed prior to the individual. This is what you tend to find in medical offices – not that it’s necessarily wrong, but there the focus is on the diagnosis and how to treat or provide care for the individual.

Why Do We Want to Use Person-First Language?

Ultimately, we want to acknowledge and highlight the person as an individual rather than highlighting their difficulty or medical diagnosis. 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 who have their own personalities, styles, and preferences for everything, and we want to take that into account during our interactions.

Now, this may seem a bit contradictory as sometimes you may hear your therapist ask if there’s a diagnosis for your child. What we are trying to determine here is if there’s 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 functioningPerson with high support needs
Mentally challengedNeurodivergent
Mentally handicappedPerson with an intellectual disability / intellectually disabled
Special needs___ is disabled
Normal / regularNeurotypical / non-disabled

Deviations in Person-First Language for Autism

One of the more recent deviations that is 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 different to 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 a different way of interpreting the world – just like everyone has their own lenses and views of the world. Taking this interpretation of Autism then allows the 2 terms above to be interchangeable as you are still seeing 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 changes, it is always best to start with person-first terminology and ask the individual how they prefer to be identified.

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.

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