Language plays a big role in how we perceive people, and it can create several unconscious biases that affect a person’s ability to work or form relationships. Taking a people-first language approach in the workplace can help employees focus on the person rather than their disability.
What is Person-First Language?
People-First Language emphasizes the person instead of the disability. This is done literally by saying phrases like “a person with autism” instead of “autistic person.” From a first-person point of view, a person with autism would say, “I am a person with ADHD” instead of “I’m autistic.”
Person-First Language can be taken further by eliminating the disability from the statement. For example, “I use a wheelchair” is more than enough. No one should have to disclose why they need a wheelchair unless they want to or it’s vital to do so for personal or professional reasons.
Why is Person-First Language Important?
By adopting People-First Language in your workplace, you’re committing to acknowledging, communicating, and reporting on disabilities in an objective way. It eliminates harmful stereotypes and generalizations by focusing on the person and their ability to contribute.
Placing the person first makes the disability secondary instead of primary. A person’s disability is only a single aspect of a whole individual. It’s socially and professionally harmful to you, your business, the person with disabilities, and our culture to use language as a discriminatory tool.
How Can Person-First Language Change Common Sayings?
While the focus of person-first language is to humanize people with disabilities, there are many common sayings that may not be directed at them that still cause harm. For example, terms like “crazy,” “spaz,” “retarded,” and “handicapped” should never be uttered by anyone to anyone.
While these words are often spoken without malice, it conveys a bias that negatively affects workplace culture. Someone in earshot may hear these terms and could be impacted personally or through loved ones. Every employee deserves an environment that’s safe and engaging.
It’s also inappropriate to “reward” someone based on the context of their disability or offer backhanded compliments. Not only does this encourage these behaviors, but it also leaves the employee in an awkward and/or difficult position. If they speak up, they may be made fun of further, or comments may be passed off as a joke, which is an insulting way to handle abuse.
All employees want to be acknowledged for their achievements and recognized for their talents. Person-First Language is an essential first step to creating a safe environment for everyone.
10 Tips on How to Create a Person-First Workplace
Employers should create a person-first workplace that makes every individual feel comfortable. With that said, it isn’t easy to acknowledge our unconscious biases. It’s important to address discrimination in the workplace with an open mind, or it will be difficult to change our actions.
Here are some tips for working with people with disabilities:
- Don’t be nervous—just be your regular, respectful self
- Always ask before “helping” a person with a disability
- Never refer to the person’s disability unless it’s relevant
- Sit at eye level when speaking to a person with mobility issues
- State your name first before speaking with a person who is blind
- Don’t interrupt a person with a speech impediment
- Make eye contact with a person who is deaf
- Don’t say someone is courageous in the context of a person’s disability
- Ask a person with a disability respectful questions about themselves
- Commit to seeing the person as an individual
Businesses should consider how to help employees with disabilities thrive in their workplaces.
To do this, show people with disabilities that they belong and add value to your organization by treating them with respect. Ensure that your other employees fit in with a people-first culture.
Are There Any Criticisms of Person-First Language?
While person-first language is seen as a step in the right direction, legitimate grievances about the practice can be found. One criticism is how it disrupts common speaking patterns. In English, the positive pronoun precedes the noun, but it’s the opposite in person-first language.
This can cause the speaker and listener to focus on the disability in a different, potentially negative way because it forces the speaker to change up their natural speaking patterns.
This theory is backed up by the National Federation of the Blind
, where chair members stated that the language sounds defensive and could cause the user to feel shame. Person-first language is also rejected in deaf culture, who prefer to be called “deaf people” instead.
It’s also criticized by autism activist Jim Sinclair on the grounds that it separates autism from the person. People-first language is used by advocacy groups like Autism Speaks, a controversial organization. The Autistic Self Advocacy Network doesn’t support people-first language.
Should your workplace use people-first language, despite these criticisms? The answer is “yes” unless the person with a disability you’re speaking/referring to is uncomfortable with it.