Classroom Management

Getting Started With Person-First Language

Focusing on who students are as individuals—instead of on learning differences or other descriptors—starts with empathy.

A teacher stands at the front of an elementary class giving a lesson
©Shutterstock/Monkey Business Images

As educators strive to be inclusive of all children, one way to begin is to actively use person-first language, a form of linguistic etiquette in which we describe a trait or diagnosis as something a person has rather than as who they are—e.g., “a person with diabetes,” not “a diabetic.” This is a way to honor and welcome students with different abilities. Indeed, how we discuss and describe our students profoundly impacts their sense of inclusion in the classroom.

To begin using person-first language, we should initially try to understand its purpose and meaning. At its core, person-first language seeks to acknowledge the inherent and equal value of every individual, before attaching any other descriptors or identities the person may view as secondary or not intrinsic. Communicating using person-first language begins with empathy.

Countless individuals from various backgrounds, races, social groups, communities, or experiences are familiar with the isolation created by a lack of person-first language. This includes people who happen to have physical, emotional, cognitive, learning, or other differences.

Think about how you personally prefer to be viewed. Momentarily, let’s imagine you have purple-colored eyes. Would you want to be known as “that purple-eyed person over there,” or by your name and the core identity you choose for yourself? Would it seem awkward, exclusionary, demeaning, uncomfortable, or limiting if others always identified you as “that purple-eyed person”? Would you perceive it as most valid to mention your eye color only if eye color were the focus of the discussion?

Real-World Opportunities

Every day, educators experience numerous possibilities for applying person-first language. One common scenario is when we’re referring to a person having a genetic pattern of trisomy 21. In this case, it’s not appropriate to say the person is “Down’s” or “Down.” The correct term for the condition is “Down syndrome”—but the person’s name should always be used first. One should say, “Mikaela has been diagnosed with Down syndrome,” and not “Mikaela is Down’s,” or “That Down syndrome girl is Mikaela.”

In this example, Mikaela is first and foremost a unique individual with many qualities and valuable contributions that are not necessarily linked to her genetic diagnosis. The fact that she happens to have Down syndrome is therefore not usually primarily relevant. It is a secondary aspect of her identity, and only she (or if she’s a young child, her family or guardian) can and should determine its relevance.

In the same way, a person with a cognitive, congenital, or physical difference or a person with an identified learning difference, health condition, or need for certain assistive devices or communication tools is always an individual first, deserving to be referenced as such. Wholistic inclusion requires avoiding the anonymous or primary grouping of distinct persons under singular characteristics, labeled disabilities, or broad qualifiers.

A person is never “sped,” “retarded,” “a spaz,” “nonverbal,” “handicapped,” “deformed,” “mental,” “slow,” “wild,” or so forth. Instead, when truly necessary to the discussion, someone may be referenced as “having a cognitive difference requiring modifications,” “using a wheelchair,” “living or diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes,” “experiencing tics,” “having cerebral palsy,” or “managing a mental illness.”

This is a simple practice that takes effort. Given the inherent offensiveness of some of the aforementioned language, such guidance may seem obvious. Yet while person-first language is a critical and often simple step toward a more authentic practice of inclusion, in reality consistent effort and ongoing open discussion are required for long-term success.

Perspective Matters

We should also try to take account of how people want to be referred to. For example, consider individuals with a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. There are as many preferences for terminology surrounding this particular diagnosis as there are individuals having the condition. Some believe autism is inherent to their core identity and therefore find no exclusion in being called autistic. Others may even take offense at the suggestion that primary reference of autism should be avoided. Still others perceive the diagnosis as only secondary to their personhood and therefore not relevant or appropriate to use as an initial introduction or reference.

[Editor’s note: Edutopia uses “autistic person” rather than “person with autism,” having been persuaded by the argument that autism is not a disability and is a core element of who the person is.]

Such situations may carry the potential to feel confusing or overwhelming. However, it’s important to remember that missteps and misunderstandings can be expected as a part of growing toward creating more inclusive language and thereby more inclusive communities. We’re all constantly learning. Particularly because person-first language seeks to value the individual in each unique situation, those who work to incorporate it in their communication will always be learning.

Thus, when we encounter a new circumstance for which we do not know the appropriate person-first language to use, we can always simply ask.