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  • Writer's pictureBarbara J. Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

Why use person-first language? When is identity-first better?

Updated: Sep 18, 2023

Image with dozens of people of all walks of life

What are the various ways you could finish this sentence: “I am _____________”?

Consider that the words we use define us. We often fill in the blank with our nationality (an American, Canadian), our gender (a woman, a boy), our profession (a dietitian, a police officer), our relationship to others (a mother, a grandfather), descriptions of our appearance (tall, redhead), and much more.

We can use words that describe traits we carry (an optimist, high-strung), conditions we deal with (anxious, hard of hearing), and all other types of descriptors.

Two distinct ways to describe ourselves and others are known as person-first and identity-first. Let’s explore what each one entails and when to use one over the other.

What is person-first language? How is it different from identity-first?

Person-first language is just that, the person comes before the descriptor. The individual’s personhood is recognized first, then the description that is of interest.

For example, a dietitian might say, “My first appointment today is with Sarah Brown who has diabetes.” If not using her name, “My first appointment today is with a woman (or person) with diabetes.”

Identity-first language puts the descriptor first, which identifies the person in a particular way.

In the example above, the dietitian could say, “My first appointment is a diabetic woman named Sarah Brown.” If not using her name, “My first appointment is a diabetic.” Diabetes is key to their identity.

Why use person-first language?

The goal of person-first language is to avoid language that dehumanizes or stigmatizes a person or group of people.

Person-first language originated in Sweden in the 1970s as part of a movement to be more respectful to people with disabilities. It became part of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1997.

For examples of person-first language for people with disabilities, see these lists and guidelines:

Over the past 30 years, person-first language has become the norm in all areas of health care, beyond people with disabilities, such as the examples with Sarah Brown above. Patients are more than the diseases or conditions they live with. They are people first.

When is identity-first language the better choice?

Although person-first language originated out of an effort to destigmatize disabilities and other descriptors, not everyone prefers person-first language. Many people feel that the use of person-first language, which requires separating the descriptor from the person, implies that the identifying trait is negative or abnormal.

Instead, they feel a sense of pride in that aspect of their identity and prefer identity-first language. This preference is seen most often among people who are deaf and those with autism but can include anyone with any identifying descriptor.

The bottom line is to ascertain what a particular person or group prefers. Use person-centered language, which could be either person-first or identity-first. Demonstrate empathy by asking others how they prefer to be described.

Have them finish the sentence, “I am __________________.”

Which one do YOU prefer when describing yourself?

“If a person calls themselves ‘autistic’ and you tell them they have to use ‘person first language’… you’re not putting the person first.” ~ Stuart Duncan

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