Person-first language made easy: The dos and don’ts 

What is “person-first language” and when do you use it? Not to worry, Perkins School for the Blind has the answers for you.

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At Perkins School for the Blind, we are a diverse community of people with different disabilities, backgrounds, and perspectives. This is why we carefully consider person-first language and identity-first language in all of our communications. It’s kind and considerate to refer to people in a way that’s authentic to their sense of self. 

What are person-first and identity-first language? 

Person-first language is a way to communicate so a person’s disability isn’t their first or most important identifier. Alternatively is identity-first language, which recognizes a person’s disability first. A few examples: 

Example 1

Identity-first: A blind person.

Person-first: A person who is blind.

Example 2

Identity-first: Ken’s autistic brother.

Person-first: Ken’s brother is on the autism spectrum.

Example 3

Identity-first: Deaf people.

Person-first: People who are Deaf.

Example 4

Identity-first: Blind people

Person-first: People who are blind

When should I use person-first language?

When it’s not possible to find out someone’s preference, refer to the person-first and the disability second. “

Knowing when and how to use person-first language can be confusing. At Perkins School for the Blind, our policy is to always ask how someone would like to be described. We also reference the ADA National Network guidelines for all our communications. Here are some important things to consider:  

Appropriate times to reference disability

Understanding the difference between person-first and identity-first language is important. It’s equally important to make sure you’re only bringing up someone’s disability when it’s actually relevant. 

Examples of when it’s appropriate

Examples of when it’s not appropriate

Listen to the community

Not every person with a disability feels the same way about using person-first or identity-first language. We were lucky enough to speak to Perkins employee Katie Norton and Perkins alumni Tom Geraci about their preferences and perspectives. 

Katie Norton

Perkins Employee

“Because I have a disability, it’s easier for me to identify when it’s appropriate to make those switches, but I understand that others without a disability might find it more difficult.”

“As a person with hearing loss (person-first language in the wild!) I will never get upset with someone for asking me how I prefer to be identified. In fact, I view it as a nice gesture rather than ‘annoying’ because it shows me that they are making the effort to ‘get it right.‘”

Tom Geraci

Perkins Alumni

“I am actually a strong proponent of identity first language. I mostly see person first language used by non-disabled people rather than other disabled folks, and to me, it almost feels like person first language is used either as a way to remember that we are fully human, or because there is a massive stigma around using the word ‘disabled.’”

Patience and practice

It may take time for you to learn how to use person-first language in everyday conversations. The goal is to be considerate and mindful. Try not to get hung up on being grammatically correct — it’s more important that people know you’re making an effort! Over time swapping between identity-first and person-first language will get easier. Thank you for making the time to learn more. Taking these steps helps create a world where everyone belongs! 

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