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What Is "Person-First Language," and Why Is It Important?

Mar 7, 2023

Person-first language (PFL) is a way of constructing sentences to emphasize a person’s individuality ahead of their condition, race, or other personal attributes. When discussing disabilities on this blog, we generally use person-first language — but as we’ll discuss in a moment, that’s not always the case.

The alternative to PFL is identity-first language (IFL). Here’s an example of each type of description:

  • Person-first language: “People with vision disabilities sometimes use screen readers to access the internet.”
  • Identity-first language: “Visually disabled people sometimes use screen readers to access the internet.”

The advantage of PFL is that it focuses on the individual. It acknowledges that disabilities don’t define the people that have them. For example, many people with vision disabilities would describe themselves as parents, coworkers, musicians, or athletes before mentioning their vision. 

However, when discussing disabilities, there’s no such thing as “perfect" word choice. While we use PFL regularly, we acknowledge that some disability advocates prefer IFL — and we try to respect those perspectives equally. 

Below, we’ll explain some of the pros and cons of person-first language. We’ll also provide some quick tips for discussing disabilities.

Person-First Language: Pros and Cons

Many news organizations and government offices prefer PFL for a simple reason: When you’re writing a lot of content, you need to have clear, consistent rules. 

In 2020, the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook implemented a number of changes that prioritized PFL. The AP Stylebook entry for “disabilities" reads: 

When possible, ask people how they prefer to be described (when the description is relevant). Some people, for example, refer to themselves as a disabled person or simply disabled, using identity-first language. Others prefer “person with a disability,” using person-first language. In describing groups of people, use person-first language.

In other words, AP recommends PFL as the default description for groups of people. However, this rule relies on the writer’s judgment and interview skills — PFL isn’t always appropriate.

To some advocates, person-first language is too euphemistic

Some people consider their conditions to be a valuable part of their identity. The most prominent example is the Deaf community: Many Deaf self-advocates prefer identity-first language (although, again, this isn’t universal). 

To many Deaf advocates, identity-first language is empowering. Deaf culture is strong, and advocates may feel that person-first language separates them from that culture — or diminishes a crucial part of who they are. Identity-first language celebrates what makes them different and helps to reduce social stigmas. 

Many blind and neurodiverse people also prefer identity-first language. However, this isn’t universal. People have different preferences, and it’s important to respect those preferences whenever possible.

Related: Writing Clearer Content That Benefits Accessibility Expands Your Audience

Choose words thoughtfully when discussing disabilities

If you’re reading carefully, you may have noticed that we’ve switched between person-first and identity-first language throughout this article. That’s perfectly okay: The most important rule when discussing disabilities is to respect your subjects' preferences. 

It’s also important to discuss disabilities without contributing to stigmas or stereotypes. Don’t avoid talking about disabilities (or your organization’s commitment to digital accessibility) because you’re afraid of offending people. There’s nothing offensive about having a disability — and there’s nothing offensive about an authentic discussion.

Here are some other tips to keep in mind:

  • Before choosing between PFL and IFL, do some quick research. If a prominent advocacy organization recommends a certain type of language when discussing a specific disability, follow their advice.
  • Don’t mention disabilities if they aren’t relevant. For example, if you’re writing about screen reader testing, it’s okay to say “our content was tested by screen reader users who have vision disabilities.” 
  • Generally, it’s okay to ask people questions about their disabilities and accommodations. 
  • Avoid using euphemisms. Do some research to find appropriate terms for specific disabilities. Some euphemistic terms (like “differently abled" or “handi-capable”) may be offensive.
  • Avoid idioms and metaphors that might be considered ableist. 
  • Don’t sensationalize the challenges of a disability or portray it as a superpower. 

Finally, do your best. Everyone makes mistakes when writing content, but if you’re discussing disabilities with an inclusive mindset, you’re taking the right approach.

For more guidance, read our article: A Quick Style Guide for Writing Disability-Focused Content

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