Earlier this week, I overheard someone say the dreaded “R” word at work. As special educator and as a parent of a child that has unique learning challenges, I find the word “retarded” devaluates a group of people directly or indirectly. When this word is used as an adjective, the noun that is describes is depreciated. The “R” word has such a strong negative connotations for families that have a family member with any form of a cognitive challenge that the Federal Handicapping Condition of “Mental Retardation” was changed to “Intellectual Disability”.

Later that day, another person used the phrase “a ton of autistic people” to describe a group of students with Autism. I cringed for a second time, and then I started to reflect on the importance of “People First” language.

The movement for “People First” language is based on the notion that all people are PEOPLE first before they are described by a secondary characteristic. In every other language of the world, the descriptor comes after the noun.

When some people hear about “People First” language, they may think; “what’s the big difference between saying “blue-eyed kids” versus saying, “kids with blue eyes”. One difference in this example is that the word kid / person is a better description of the essence of that person. Having blue eyes is just a physical attribute and it should not define who that person is. Another difference in this example is that once you start using labels that infer a preconceived notion (such as disability, religion, gender, race or sexual orientation) to describe a person, you limit your perception based on that label. Therefore, when we describe an “autistic kid”, our primary image is of that person’s diagnosis and any biases or pre-conceived notions about autism. If we say “person with autism”, we focus on the individual’s “personhood” first.

What does this matter? We are only talking about words. Why should I care about word order?

Yes, it does matter since words are the currency of our conscious thought process. Labeling a person not only effects our conscious perception of a person, it also affects our unconscious perception of that person.

If you have any doubt of the incredible power of labeling, you need to go back 45 years ago to Jane’ Elliott’s third-grade class. In an attempt to teacher her students the effects of racism, she separated her class into groups of “brown eyed” kids and “blue eyed” kids. Elliott requested that he blue-eyed students wear paper armbands.  Ms. Elliot said to her class, “The brown eyed people are the better people in this room. They are cleaner and they are smarter.” By lunchtime Ms. Elliot noticed that previously shy, withdrawn brown-eyed kids were suddenly outgoing, and acting like classroom leaders. At recess, groups of brown-eyed kids started picking on the blue-eyed students. In the afternoon, a blue-eyed girl who had never had problems with multiplication tables started making mistakes. In just under one school day, an entire classroom had changed their view of themselves and their fellow students solely on the basis of a label.

The main point of “People First” language is that we should all celebrate our common humanity. We are all people regardless of race, creed, culture, color, sexual orientation, religion, political affiliation, physical ability, mental ability, health status, age, gender, height or eye-color. All of our attributes are factors that add to who we are, but any specific attribute should not be considered the one thing that defines the totality of who we are.

7 Responses to “PEOPLE First!”

  1. You bring out some really good points in the reasoning behind putting the noun before the description of it, as in ‘person/people’. I doubt most of us really think about the correlation, but it makes perfect sense to me.

  2. Wonderful article. Thank you. Jay

  3. Wow, this post really hit home. I grew up with a brother who has epilepsy which has been the cause of mental disabilities, as well as Autism and ADHD, which brought on a host of behavioral issues. It took me some time but eventually I realized that he is really not any of these conditions, he is a beautiful person that loves to talk about planes and loves to watch Mr. Rogers. By the same vein this experience made me realize that we are all People…just different. But I love the way you put it, “People First”. And I will definitely be referencing Jane Elliot the next time someone disagrees.

    • Thank you very much for this heartfelt comment. I can see that you love your brother and that you have accepted him for who he is. My youngest son has “special needs” and his brother accepts him for who he is (although he may be annoyed by some of his brother’s behaviors”).


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