"People-first" language

from the Editor's Note in the July 1997 issue of Physical Therapy:
Jules M Rothstein, PhD, PT, FAPTA
Editor, Physical Therapy

Our Journal has long advocated the use of “people-first” language. Apparently, too many people have not noticed, or have been unwilling to be influenced by the Journal and by the policies of the American Physical Therapy Association. Although people-first language requires us to abandon old habits, the task is not difficult. Old habits, such as smoking, are hard to overcome. Yet, if we give up bad language like we give up cigarettes, not only are we healthier, but there is less second-hand damage.

People have diseases, impairments, and disabilities—they are not the sum product of their medical conditions. People have paraplegia—they are not “paraplegics”! In too many of the posters and presentations at the recent meeting in San Diego, we were showing the world our insensitivity. When a member of the audience referred to people as “strokers,” the audience and the moderator should have called this reckless speaker to task. Audience members at oral presentations and readers of posters should have similarly told people that titles referring to “paraplegics” and “hemiplegics” could easily have referred instead to persons with those conditions. Posters with descriptions of people “suffering” from conditions need not have included this pejorative and demeaning term. Suffering is best acknowledged by those experiencing it, and those who have medical conditions do not need this patronizing label applied to them by health care workers.

Perhaps the time has come to ban materials at our meetings that do not adhere to reasonable standards. We should, I believe, refuse to allow the presentation of materials that use offensive language in reference to gender, ethnicity, or race. Anyone who claims ignorance of the issues related to people-first language is confessing to professional ignorance and an insular existence. If you do not know enough about people-first language to use it properly, learn! Guidelines for Reporting and Writing About People With Disabilities, published by The Research and Training Center at the University of Kansas, offers some basic guidance in writing and speaking about persons with disabilities.

This is not a simple issue of political correctness or of linguistic bullies seeking to make everyone talk and write the way they do. In this century, we have learned about the power of communication. In pre-World War II Germany, Jews, as well as people with disabilities, were easier to eliminate because they had been dehumanized by the Nazi propaganda machine. In this country, we have seen similar abuses. Ralph Ellison illuminated the world of the abused African American in his classic novel Invisible Man. His title haunts me still because it speaks to people who are in the eyes of others not quite people. We can abuse and treat differently those who we do not see as being like ourselves. Through our language, we can recognize our common humanity, or we can reinforce our differences; we can relate to others, or we can choose to build walls.

Last updated 8-13-2008 David M. Thompson Ph.D., P.T.