Put the People First (Usually)

A journalist doodle asks a doodle with a cat sleeping on their head, “And how do you want us to refer to you?” The doodle replies, “As a person with cat head. Thanks for asking!”

Here at We ❤️ Health Literacy Headquarters, we get lots of questions about how to refer to people with disabilities or certain health conditions. What are the right terms to use? How can I make sure I’m being respectful of my priority audience?

These questions get at the heart of big topics like health, disease, and identity — so, as health communicators, we need to be particularly aware of them.

Generally speaking, there are 2 schools of thought:

  • People-first language means emphasizing the word “person” when talking about someone’s disability, condition, or identity. This means you would say a “person who is blind” instead of a “blind person” — or “people with diabetes” and not “diabetics.” In short, you put the “person” (or “people”) first.
  • Identity-first language reflects the idea that separating the “person” from the identity implies a sense of shame. For example, most culturally Deaf people feel that Deafness is an important part of who they are — so they prefer to be called a “Deaf person” instead of a “person who is Deaf.” In general, the same goes for autistic people — many prefer “autistic person” instead of “person with autism,” so as not to separate autism from their identity.

For many groups, people-first language has become the standard — and it’s a good overall rule of thumb. But the fact remains that it may not be the best choice for every group.

So, how can you make sure you’re referring to your priority audience in a respectful way? Simple: test your materials with… your priority audience! Then you can ask how people refer to themselves and how they want others to do so. If you don’t have a lot of resources to devote to testing, keep low-cost options in mind — because this, dear readers, is an important one to get right.

The bottom line: When writing about a disability or health condition, people-first language is a good rule of thumb — but it’s always best to ask your audience what they prefer.

Tweet about it: What’s the right way to refer to people with disabilities or certain health conditions? People-first language is a good rule of thumb — but always ask your audience what they prefer, says @CommunicateHlth: https://bit.ly/38dPn6r


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