Social Question

SuperMouse's avatar

What is your opinion on "person first" language? (See inside for details.)

Asked by SuperMouse (30772points) August 27th, 2009

I am finishing up my endorsement to teach secondary special education and one thing I am finding is that my instructors are sticklers about using “person first” language. In other words instead of saying “my quadriplegic boyfriend” I would say “my boyfriend who is quadriplegic.” What I find interesting is that the able-bodied people I come across in this department are a lot more picky about the use of person first language than the folks I know who are disabled (See what I did there? Instead of disabled folks I wrote folks who are disabled.)

Do you think it is a common courtesy kind of thing or is it political correctness taken just a bit too far?

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33 Answers

Strauss's avatar

I think it is a common courtesy, based on new social sensitivities. This type of “new” courtesy may be taken to the limit of political correctness.

dpworkin's avatar

I think it’s a load of crap. I have a blind girlfriend. If I introduced her as my “girlfriend who is blind” she would wonder what happened to my faculties.

My friend John calls himself a crippled guy. I guess you would say that he is a person who is quadriplegic

I also have a large number of “Native American” friends who speak of themselves as Indians.

Life is just too short for this crap. People need to use their heads: Gypsy is offensive, Roma is not. Nigger is offensive, “colored” isn’t so hot either. But person of quadriplegia?. Please!

barumonkey's avatar

Personally, I think this sets them apart further, instead of “normalizing” them, as is the intent. I say this because it is only applied to those with attributes that are often viewed as “negative”; I imagine the upper echelon of society would rather be called “high-class people” than “people with an advantaged societal rank”.

Therefore, if I hear a politically-correct-sounding description of a person, my mind immediately jumps to the fact that it’s being actively “polite” to them, instead of thinking of them as just another person who happens to be different in some mundane way.

Anon_Jihad's avatar

I’m not particularly a fan of that format, I think it makes speech unnecessarily longer. I’m most certainly not a simpleton, but I just don’t see enough valid points to make that smidgen extra effort.

PerryDolia's avatar

I think it makes a difference whether they expect this language when you are writing or when you are speaking.

I can see the formality of the difference when you are writing. It may be better to use first person language.

I can also see the somewhat misguided expectation to accentuate the positive in the sentence structure (the person) over accentuating the handicap (quadriplegic), but it seems a bit stiff for normal conversation.

I think they are trying to get you to talk more about and focus on the person over the handicap, but, in speech, it comes across kind of phony.

Buttonstc's avatar

I have a couple of guy friends of mine who have lost a limb or two in the armed services.

They refer to themselves as gimps. They would definitely call BS on this type of malarky.

It just comes off as patronizing. I’m reminded of the similarly tortured and stilted phrase ” differently abled” which used to be all the rage for awhile. Puh-leeeze. Give me a break.

I have a niece with Downs and I cannot come up with a more accurate phrase to describe her functioning than the simple English word “retarded”.

Unfortunately, some dimwits chose to shorten it to “retard” and hurl it as an insult.

The simple meaning of it is “slowed down” and if you read cookbook instructions you still encounter references to retarding the action of the yeast, literally slowing it down.

Even tho she is on the higher end of the scale for Downs kids, compared to average kids it takes her 3 to 4 times the amount of time to learn something. Thus she is slowed down. Not stupid or unable to learn, just much slower than the average bear. In other words, retarded. But of course I’m not allowed to use that word regardless of the fact that is the most accurate way to describe her functioning. In the purest sense of the word it is simple and direct but nowadays that’s politically incorrect.

Instead of campaigning for the PROPER USAGE of the word, somebody decided it was more e pedient to just drive it out of the language altogether.

Has this been successful in eliminating the hurtful (as well as grossly inaccurate) term retard from being hurled as an insult. Well just spend some time hanging around a playground listening to kids nowadays and judge for yourself.

It’s only the rest of us who use the word retarded in an accurate way who must be stifled at all costs.

What’s wrong with this picture?

End of rant. I’ll get down off my little soapbox now…

SuperMouse's avatar

@PerryDolia I so agree with you, it sounds stilted and fake in conversation. I find though that it doesn’t flow naturally in the written form either.

@barumonkey I agree with your point about setting people further apart. Whether the person or the disability comes first, discussing the disability in our description of the person automatically sets that person apart.

noelasun's avatar

What woulds would be appropriate then? I understand that trying to be a stickler for PC terms only serves to set people apart further- but then, people take offense both ways.

What’s most respectful?

zephyr826's avatar

@noelasun I also ask that question. I teach regular education (or should that be education that is regular? – it takes fiber), and I have several students with exceptionalities (which isn’t even a word, I think, but that’s what the district calls them). When I’m talking about their learning problems with their special ed teachers, I’m never sure of the words to use. It seems to me that we spend far too much time deciding what to label them and not enough time trying to help them.

dpworkin's avatar

@noelasun If you don’t know the person, Mr or Ms So-and-so is appropriate. If you do, ask and he or she will tell you.

noelasun's avatar

@zephyr826 I totally agree. But discomfort of what words to use indicates an awareness, and it occurs to me when everyone has that awareness, perhaps then PC and all those “correct terms” might finally be rendered moot.

@pdworkin I’m not speaking about introducing their names… We tend to describe people by their definitive traits, such as, “the short girl”, “the asian girl”, “the bossy girl” etc. (all the above are ways people describe me, btw) And it doesn’t occur to us to employ things like “people first”.
But then when it comes to disabilities, even though “the handicapped one” might be the easiest way to describe someone, there’s something that makes us uncomfortable.

I have a “sister who is handicapped” and volunteer at a special needs school. I’m asking because I’d like some insight.

macca's avatar

I agree with @barumonkey – it’s one of those things that’s only a problem to people who are trying to be overly PC, but not to any of the people who it actually affects, and I would actually think that separating the ‘negative’ term emphasizes it more, like you’re making a bigger statement about it as though it really matters, when it doesn’t.

dpworkin's avatar

I understand, which is why I suggested names. I once went to my kids’ birthday party (I have twins) and I had often heard about a kid called “Manny” but I had never met him. I asked my kids. “Which one is Manny?” and they both answered in one voice, “the one in the orange shirt.” This only meant something because my kids are white, and Manny is black, and I was very pleased to see how they distinguished him.

I am suggesting that we must all work hard to make disabilities equally inconsequential. I say begin by refusing to characterize people by their so-called disabilities: Mr Jones, rather than The Person Who Is Paraplegic.

noelasun's avatar

@pdworkin But doesn’t that sort of serve the same purpose? The avoiding mentioning people’s disabilities and “person first” language?

rebbel's avatar

Not sure if this is in the same league, but do you recognise this: “I went to the game with my mate, who, by the way, is gay, which is okay of course”.
Why do (some) people do that?

dpworkin's avatar

I mention it if the person wants it mentioned. Would I mention your fat ass or his warts?

Buttonstc's avatar

BTW: there was a recent question posted by a person who referred to herself as a “techno-tard”.

Should this have been modded and subsequently corrected to “techno-learning-disabled?”

A bit on the clunky side, no?

My what a slippery slope all of this fastidious PC stuff can be.

noelasun's avatar

Well, things like “fat ass” and “warts” are… somehow accepted with much less stigma than things like race or sexual orientation or disability.
I’m just wondering if this sort of awareness is helping or hindering our path to ridding ourselves of whatever particular stigma.

@rebbel I think people might do that because we know that things like sexual orientation is still something people as a whole are coming around to.

Buttonstc's avatar


Ha ha. Seinfeld classic:

“not that there’s anything wrong with that…”

dpworkin's avatar

I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be brusque. I live with this issue every day since my companion is blind. It seems to me that it is a rude and wasteful gesture to characterize her first by her disability. It is inconvenient to be blind. But before you call her the girl who is blind, you could call her the girl with the Masters Degree, or the girl who rides horseback, or the girl who sails sailboats, or the girl who sings, or skis, or writes, or programs computers, or who has a nice smile. She is, indeed, all of the above. Why should her blindness be the most salient thing about her?

noelasun's avatar

@pdworkin GA

It shouldn’t be the most salient thing about her. And hopefully, one day it truly won’t be.
I wish the world could see my sister as I see her. I realize though, there needs be lots of change to our perspectives before this can happen.
What is the best way to educate people, and can we, without taking this step of “PC” in between?

cwilbur's avatar

I think that when you declare one sentence structure appropriately sensitive and another sentence structure intolerant, you have gone completely off the tracks.

It’s the content of the thought that matters, so long as the form is not ambiguous.

dpworkin's avatar

I tried to say before: begin by recognizing the humanity first, the disability next.

Strauss's avatar

I think this discussion points to the fact that our brains (not necessarily the language) have the ability to assume associations, or to stereotype based upon description.

A good example of that is the word “honky”, now used as a pejorative term for a white person. A generation or two ago, it was used to describe Hungarian immigrants, much like the term “Polack” was used to describe Polish immigrants. These terms, along with such terms as the dreaded “N’ word, and words like retarded, gay (as in “how gay is that!”), “short bus”, and many others, have evolved in usage from descriptives to pejoratives, mostly due to stereotypes associated with certain populations.

Supacase's avatar

So we are supposed to use “My husband Mike likes apples” instead of “Mike, who is my husband, likes apples” but “My niece, who is autistic, likes apples” instead of “My autistic niece likes apples”? That is absurd.

rebbel's avatar

But why not just say “My niece likes apples”?
Is her autism relevant info to the person who you are telling about her apple-fondness?

Strauss's avatar

@rebbel to differentiate from the other niece, whose description might be something other than autistic.

macca's avatar

@rebbel in any case that you are using a disability to describe someone you must feel it is relevant for some reason, whether you use it in ‘person first’ order or not.

SuperMouse's avatar

I was actually discussing this with my boyfriend this afternoon and he made a good point. Do we call Albert Einstein, “That Genius Einstein” or “Einstein the Genius”? So we are allowed to put the trait first if it is considered a positive trait but not if it is considered a negative trait. Then whose to say what is positive and what is negative? It seems like a double standard that serves, as @barumonkey says, to set people even further apart.

Chrissi85's avatar

It depends cos I don’t have a ‘Downs Syndrome sister’ but a sister who has Downs Syndrome.. on the other hand I say I work with Autistic Children simply because it’s very long winded to say ‘I work with children who have a form of Autism’ ..but I reason that as long as you in yourself are compassionate it shouldn’t matter how you say it, as long as you don’t say ‘my retarded sister’ or anything equally disgusting. Also there is not always a need to point these things out, mostly I just say ‘my sister’ so unless you are required to describe someones condition, I think it’s better to call them ‘a person’ and who knows, it might catch on =) generally I think people are pretty scared of being seen as bigoted or intolerant, so they go too far in the other direction and just end up sounding kinda pedantic and stupid (she says after a pretty pedantic answer)

alahivemind's avatar

hmmm, just thinking, man of color is just the “person first” way of saying colored man, which is kind of offensive, no? I’m only 27 and still can’t follow what’s p.c. these days. Anyway, free speech trumps any of the p.c. b.s., whether it offends you or not.

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