People First Language: Dignity, Not Semantics
By Yvette Sangster
Founder, Advocacy Unlimited, Inc.
Language is power. Our words have the power to teach, inspire, motivate, and uplift people. Words also have the power to hurt, isolate and oppress individuals or entire segments of society. It is not about semantics, it is about dignity and a right for people to be treated with respect. Many labels used for people with disabilities in our society have negative connotations or are misleading. Using labels contributes to negative stereotypes and devalues the person they attempt to describe. It is only important to refer to the person's disability if it is relevant to the conversation or situation. Often times, throughout our history, it has become necessary to change our language and the way in which we refer to individuals and groups to avoid further oppressing those members of society. The time has come to reshape our language once again so that we may refer to people with disabilities and the disability community in a respectful and inclusive manner. When a stigmatized group of people, such as persons with mental illnesses, is struggling for increased understanding and acceptance, attention to the language used in talking and writing about people is particularly important.
Generic reference to "the mentally ill" or "the consumer" conveys a lack of appreciation for the individuality of those referred to. It communicates and reinforces the discriminatory notion that "the mentally ill" are a special and separate group that is fundamentally unlike the rest of "us."
The use of people first language such as "a person with schizophrenia," "an individual with bipolar disorder," or "people with mental illnesses," on the other hand, recognizes and communicates that the people being referred to are first and foremost multidimensional human beings like everyone else but who, secondarily, have a disability with which they are dealing. Use of such language, although sometimes awkward, is important. Not only does it challenge the existing tendencies of the public to view and treat those individuals with psychiatric disabilities in dehumanizing ways, it also helps those individuals with mental illnesses feel respected as human beings rather than disparaged as diseased and dysfunctional.
Who are the people? When we begin to think that people with mental illness are human beings first, with hopes, dreams, goals and value, everything we do, and say after that reflection is more meaningful, and respectful to that person. As a result of our actions, and thoughts, we assist the public at large to remove the barriers of discrimination that devalue individuals with disabilities. Simultaneously we provide an environment in which people with mental illness are valued and motivated to gain hope for their future and reach their goals.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the National Advisory Council of the Center for Mental Health Services, support use of "people first" language within mental health research, policies, programs, and professions. The National Council on Disability made a similar resolution.
…return to Previous Page