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Why Person-First Language Matters

Jan 9, 2017 9:00:00 AM

Why Person-First Language Matters
I read it in news articles. I hear it on newscasts. I hear it walking on the street. I have even heard it used in churches. I see and hear it everywhere, and it makes me cringe —Every. Single. Time. What is it? It is people using a characteristic (usually a disability) to define who a person is. And it is wrong.

Now, I am no Social Justice Warrior. Nor am I a guy who is on the extreme edge of being politically correct. This is not about that. So please, hear me out before you tune me out.

How Our Minds Work

Our minds want to categorize everything. Chaos is the antithesis to how our minds think. Instead, our brain processes the information around us and tries to find patterns. This is why so many people think Jesus’ face appears on a piece of toast. Or why when you catch a glimpse of something, you might first think it is a person before you look back at it and find out it is just a piece of furniture. This is also why impressionist paintings work: because your mind “fills in the blanks” so to speak.

Placing things into categories allows us to interact with them in a proper way. A gross example: my mind realizing that a stool is for sitting on and not to use as a Frisbee is going to affect how I interact with said stool. This is why we try to avoid awkward situations: we do not know how to act (or react) because the situation does not fall into a preconceived category. Not surprisingly, smiling is the most common reaction to something that is awkward because smiling is a universal body language of nonaggression. Think about it: if you are unsure, do you really want to be aggressive? Probably not.

Now our brain (and mind) is a very sophisticated information-processing center. It can hold a lot of information. And as we get older, our brain holds even more information, causing the appearance of a slow thinking process. In order to process information faster, the brain makes shortcuts. One of these shortcuts is labeling. If I put a label on something, I know what it is, and I can automatically access the parts of my brain that allow me to interact or process information that is relative to whatever the thing might be.

Roughly going through this: I see a banana. My brain (very, very quickly) accesses my knowledge on bananas. This is how I can tell if it is ripe. If I am hungry, I know how to eat it. If my body is craving potassium, my brain could signal that what I am craving is that banana. All this happens in a flash. But it is all stored in my brain under “banana.”

Now, much like on a computer, information can be overwritten. However, unlike on a computer, to do so is much harder. Once we learn how to do something one way, it is much harder to learn to do it another way. This is why if you learn something incorrectly, it is much harder to learn the correct information. You overwrite, or rewrite, or reorganize, all the information in your mind through conscience thought. And a great tool for organizing conscience thought is language.

The Problem

The largest single minority within the world (much less the United States) is people with disabilities. Disabilities can refer to either mental or physical handicaps, and a person can join this group at any time, from before birth to late in life. It crosses every other line that define minorities (race, gender, etc.).

The problem occurs when we define a person by the disability. Think of the many traits you possess, both positive (loving mom, loyal friend) and negative (lousy cook, bad with technology) and ask yourself: how would you feel if somebody defined you only by your biggest “negative” quality? I put the negative in quotes because in my personal experience a disability is rarely a negative—I have met wonderful people who have Down syndrome or autism or who utilize a wheelchair; those are not negatives. So how do you want to be defined? Lousy cook Laura? Anger issues Dan? Fat Tom? A wee little man Zacchaeus?

When we put the characteristic or quality before the person, we are defining that person as the characteristic first and as a person second. We have defined that person’s whole existence by a perceived box. In effect, we have defined the person as less than human, as less than a person. We have implied that somehow that person’s existence is not quite as deep or rich or whatever-term-you-want-to-place-here as a “normal” person’s. We are well, but that person is now only defined as sick. Which is funny, because I am pretty sure Jesus mentioned something about coming for those who are sick and not those who are well.

So when you say “the autistic kid” or “the crippled guy,” what you are saying is that all that really matters about a person is his or her disability. And it is not much better to say, “She is autistic” or “He is crippled.” Again, you are defining the person by the disability. This means that in your mind the person is the disability first and a person second. Historically, this is what society has done. Defining a person by a disability is what led to eugenics. It is also why the Nazis murdered thousands of individuals with disabilities; they saw these people as a drag on the society’s resources instead of as having any possible “positive” contribution. Ultimately, labels dehumanize.

Such language defines people by what they cannot do instead of who they are. Would you ever call somebody an “autistic Christian”? No! So why do that to their personhood? Why think of persons by their perceived limitations?

The Solution

Person-first (or people-first) language “aims to avoid perceived and subconscious dehumanization when discussing people with disabilities.” In effect, you change your language to change your thinking. This takes quite a bit of effort. Trust me, I had to change my thinking. It can be awkward to read, write, and speak at first because it takes longer. However, it is worth it. And, once you do, you start to see and realize how bad we are as a church in defining people by disabilities.

Think about it: does your church have handicap parking or accessible parking? a handicap ramp or just a ramp? a handicap bathroom or a family/accessible bathroom? In your church’s bulletin, do you say, “disabled persons need to notify an usher so that Communion may be brought to them”?

As Christians, we are pro-life. To be pro-life means to affirm life. It means to see people as people instead of as labels. Frankly, you cannot be pro-life and insist on labeling people by their disabilities. This is why people-first language matters. We want to see the person—the person for whom Jesus came and died to redeem. That fact right there means the person is worthy enough of careful language. No contribution can be demanded of a person to be considered valuable because everybody’s value comes from the fact that Jesus died for everybody. In His death, Jesus said, “You are worth it, and you are loved for the simple fact that God created you and I died for you.” Now, people can reject that worth and love, but it does not change the fact that God still created people and Jesus still died for everybody.

Two Notable Exceptions

As with almost everything, there are notable exceptions to all this. Deaf persons, by and large, prefer to be called deaf persons. I have come across two lines of reasoning for this. The first is a negative one. So much of society is auditory that (some) deaf persons feel completely outside of it. The second is positive. In person-first language, a deaf person would be defined as “a person with a hearing impairment.” Deaf persons see this as emphasizing something that they cannot do (fully hear) and so reject it.

The other notable exception is blind people. In 1993, the National Federation of the Blind passed a resolution condemning person-first language. Like “deaf,” some blind people prefer person-first and others do not.


Using person-first language matters a lot. It shows that the value is placed on the person and not on a disability. Now, not all persons with disabilities ascribe to person-first language. That is a personal choice. However, the best practice is to use person-first language unless the person tells you otherwise.

Person-first language reaffirms our historic practice of being pro-life and of teaching people that “God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

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Rev. Daniel Ross

Written by Rev. Daniel Ross

Rev. Daniel Ross is the pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in Topeka, Kansas. A graduate of the University of Central Oklahoma and Concordia Seminary, Daniel is passionate about bringing God’s love to people. Originally technologically ignorant and averse, Daniel has embraced and come to enjoy the opportunities that technology has opened up in spreading the Gospel to all nations throughout the world. He and his wife have two young children. He enjoys fishing, reading, and spending time with his family. If you follow him on Twitter, you will come to realize that he is an avid Oklahoma Sooner fan.