Why People-First Language Matters

As I was pondering what to write about this month, I was struck by the number of cringe worthy moments I was experiencing while reading a variety of media outlets or hearing presentations by experts and providers in the mental health field. Too often I am reading or hearing, “mentally ill person,” or “bipolar individual,” or “suicidal person.” Why does this matter? Well because, above all else, this person is still that, a person. They aren’t less of a person because they have a diagnosis or are having suicidal ideation. It should be: an individual with bipolar; a person having suicidal thoughts; or a person with a mental illness. Their diagnosis and thoughts aren’t more important than them being an individual. The person should be the focus of the conversation and their diagnosis or thoughts should be secondary, or one of just many things that make up this person.

Major media outlets, both locally and nationally, continue to use this outdated, inappropriate language. Responsible journalism isn’t happening in this regard, and most probably don’t even realize that what they’re reporting – or how they’re reporting it – is an issue. There have been meetings and presentations I’ve attended over the last few years where I hear the same thing from the presenter who is supposed to be an expert in the field! Then I start to wonder, if even providers treating these same individuals or experts in the field can’t get the language right, how are the people reporting on the issues or shaping legislation impacting these individuals supposed to get it right?

People-first language has probably been best advocated for in the population that experiences intellectual and developmental disabilities, but it should carry over to all areas. The Arc (https://www.thearc.org/who-we-are/media-center/people-first-language) said it well, “The language a society uses to refer to persons with disabilities shapes its beliefs and ideas about them. Words are powerful; old, inaccurate, and inappropriate descriptors perpetuate negative stereotypes and attitudinal barriers. When we describe people by their labels of medical diagnoses, we devalue and disrespect them as individuals.” They go on to say, “In contrast, using thoughtful terminology can foster positive attitudes about persons with disabilities . . . People-First Language emphasizes the person, not the disability. By placing the person first, the disability is no longer the primary, defining characteristic of an individual, but one of several aspects of the whole person.” I couldn’t have said it better myself!

Even the government has put out guidelines on how to appropriately use people-first language or communicating with or about someone with a disability. They echo the importance of emphasizing the person, not the disability. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides a great guide of language and phrases to use, and those to avoid, when talking about a wide variety of issues dealing with many disabilities and situations. http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/disabilityandhealth/pdf/disabilityposter_photos.pdf

So what can we do when we hear someone not using people-first language? I would suggest not making them feel ignorant or foolish for their mistake because they may not even realize that what they said was offensive or improper. Simply use it as a teaching moment. Emphasize the importance of focusing on the person first, and their disability simply as one of the many components of their life circumstances. If each of us takes just a few moments to educate someone, they may do the same the next time they hear someone make the same mistake, and soon a true ripple effect will take place where the only language being used is people-first language. So I challenge each of you to think about how you’re phrasing things during presentations or in every day conversations, and if need be, make this slight, but very important adjustment.

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Julia Hebenstreit, Executive Director of The Kim Foundation

Julia Hebenstreit is the Executive Director of The Kim Foundation. She received her J.D. from Creighton University in 2005, and her BS in Journalism from the University of Nebraska Omaha in 2002. She has been with The Kim Foundation since 2011, and prior to that worked for local non-profits doing development, strategic planning, communications and advancement. She has a passion for helping people and improving lives, and serves on the Executive Committee for Nebraska Association of Behavioral Health Organizations, as the 2015 Hill Day State Captain for the state of Nebraska, and as an active member of the Nebraska Suicide Prevention Coalition, the Early Childhood Mental Health Coalition, BHECN Advisory Committee, RESPECT Advisory Board, Connections Advisory Board and the Project Propel Planning Group.

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