Using People-First Language

Since the late 80’s, something called “people-first language” has become standard in many newsrooms. Basically it’s the idea that the person comes first, and their condition comes second. “People with disabilities” is pretty much standard now, rather than the old “disabled people”.  The concept, which is supported by a large number of organizations which support and advocate for people with disabilities, is that they are people first, and their disability is only a secondary attribute.

There are some cautions here.

The National Federation of the Blind adopted a resolution in the ‘90’s which condemns politically correct language in all forms, and says it has no problem with the term “blind person”.

Among the deaf, person-first language has been completely rejected. “Hearing impaired” is NOT acceptable terminology to most deaf people. For many, being deaf is a source of pride and identity. Many deaf people are completely comfortable with the term “hard of hearing person”.

Since this is very much a developing area of usage, some autism activists do not support people-first language, saying “person with autism” suggests that somehow, the autism can be separated from the person.

If you are interviewing a person with a disability, or someone from an organization representing that particular disability, the safest and smartest course of action is to ASK the person how they want to be referred to – if, in fact, their particular disability is even relevant to the story you’re doing.

Think and ask before you write, and you’ll avoid clichés like the outmoded “confined to a wheelchair”, which is not only inaccurate and not descriptive, but downright offensive to many people who use a wheelchair to increase their mobility.  “Uses a wheelchair” is often acceptable, but “confined to a wheelchair” – while you still hear it to this day – is an outmoded and offensive phrase. Again, before writing the story, you must ask whether or not the person uses a wheelchair is even relevant to the story.

Ask before you write; and for guidance, the “Disability Is Natural” website can help.

Here’s another great help and reference: The Diversity Style Guide from SPJ and other collaborators.

And, here’s a great reference from the NAB called “Reporting On Race“.