People-first language

What is “people-first language”?

It’s using language that describes the person living with a condition, whereby the condition does not the define the person.

Why is this important?

There’s an overwhelming amount of literature that shows that people living with a disability (PWD) have a higher incidence of depression, and anxiety. Life living with a disability is challenging on its own, let alone trying to navigate through life like a somewhat functional human being. The Center for Disease Control released a wonderful one-page poster on endorsing people-first language.

We are not living in the 1900s anymore. Diagnosis does not mean “certain death” any longer, and many people with disabilities are living long (and fulfilling!) lives. In referring to a person by their disability first, then the rest of their identity has been stripped from them. Their identity by which gets them out of bed every day and on with their lives, in spite of living with a disability.

Here are some easy examples:

  • rather than referring to someone as a “diabetic”, they are a “person living with diabetes”
  • instead of “schizophrenic”, this “person lives with schizophrenia”
  • instead of “asthmatic”, use “person living with asthma”
  • instead of “obese”, use “person living with obesity”
  • instead of “an alcoholic”, use “person living with alcoholism”

Sounds pretty simple, right?

I wish I had a bucket to represent how many people have asked me “Oh, are you a DIABETIC?” It would be overflowing and result in a puddle that looks like the Pacific Ocean.

what a trail runner might look like

Gee gosh golly, I thought I was a:

  • mountain biker
  • trail runner
  • cycle commuter
  • aspiring biathlete
  • DJ
  • clinical exercise physiologist
Copyright Trystan Turvey 2019. This is me mountain biking.

There are so many things I would rather be used to describe me, other than by a chronic illness I live with. Of course, you cannot see any of above attributes simply by looking at me. You can occasionally see me whip out my blood glucose meter to finger prick myself to check my glucose levels. This device which I use to prevent myself from dying every day is now a focal point of conversation. Now that I’ve outed myself as someone with a disability, by someone asking me if I’m a “diabetic” has stolen the agency of allowing me (the person living with it) to decide when or if I want to engage in a discussion about it. Chances are, I don’t. It might be the first time you are asking, but it’s definitely not the first time the PWD has had to answer it.

All this being said, it’s not people who live with diabetes that hear the condition-first language the most, society still uses “obese” as every day common language. The Obesity Action Coalition in the United States is also a proponent of increasing the use of people-first language.

We all deserve to be treated with compassion, dignity, and respect. Show your friends how much you care by speaking to them and about them using people-first language. You are so much more than the chronic illness or disability that you have to take care of. I know how tiring it is. Your only reward is being alive another day. I’m happy to see you.

EDIT: a nice person on my Twitter today informed me shortly after I posted this article, that people with autism preferred to be referred to as “Autistic”. In their minds, autism is not something they have, it is something they are. Here is some further reading material on why they prefer identity-first language. Thank you to the person who was brave enough to call me out and remind me that not every approach will fit every person.

Further reading: a link to a study which shows that being active helps to increase self-esteem in PWD compared to PWD who are not physically active. Should be no surprises there.