Person-First Language: It Does More Harm Than Good

Some years ago, the New Zealand Government published a discussion document on its Disability Strategy. In that document, they referred to “people experiencing disability”. The response to this convoluted emasculation of the English language was a resounding “bah” from the majority of those actually being described. As a result, New Zealand Government policy, by request of the majority of those living with disability on a daily basis, is to refer to “disabled People”. Thank goodness for that.
Yet every so often, I still come across professionals who insist on referring to “people who are blind”, “people with vision impairments”, or even “people experiencing blindness”. There’s also that ghastly term “visually challenged”, but that’s beyond the scope of this article.
There are many adjectives that might be used to describe us. I’m a white guy. I’m a short person. I’m also a blind man. Saying that I’m a blind person no more defines me in totality than saying I’m a white man. It’s just one adjective that might be used to describe me.
Why does this matter? It matters because when you go through unnatural-sounding linguistic hoops to describe one particular characteristic, it draws more attention to it than it would were you to use more regular construction. My partner Bonnie is a beautiful woman. Sometimes, I remember to tell her that. If I were to describe her, either to her directly or someone else, as a woman experiencing beauty, everyone would think that a rather peculiar turn of phrase, or should that be a turn of phrase with peculiarity?
There is a widely held myth among the general public who don’t often encounter blind people, that “blind” is somehow an inappropriate word to use. Part of that is because of all the person-first language that was so in vogue a few years ago, and that stragglers still cling to.
People genuinely curious about the needs, capabilities and opinions of blind people, should be able to ask honest and thoughtful questions without being hung up on the language.
During the person-first madness, it was claimed that using person-first language would remind people that we’re people first, our disability is second. All it did was to make us seem too sensitive and politically correct, and intimidate people who became fearful of offending by using the wrong words in the wrong order. Open, easy dialogue is critical to us gaining more jobs and improving understanding of how capable one can be even when one is blind.
Yes, as well as a blind person, I’m an opinionated person, but in this case, my opinion is widely shared by a number of organisations of the blind, including the National Federation of the Blind in the US, and our own Blind Citizens New Zealand.
It seems to me that it’s predominantly a few professionals now holding on to the person-first thing. Blind people themselves, and indeed in this country, disabled people at large, have spoken. It complicates communication and makes language sound unnatural. While done with the very best of intentions, it’s doing more harm than good.

Right! Having written this, time for me to press the button with sendness. 

7 Comments

  1. Mel Griffiths

    In the UK the current fashion is to describe us as people living with sight loss, or even worse, they talk about our sight loss journey! I do hope that our organisations will follow those in New Zealand sooner or later and see sense.

  2. Chris Swank

    Sight loss journey? A journey resulting in what? Good heavens, talk about talking around a subject. But then again, the way I see it is no matter what people tell you or how they might convince you such language is for your benefit, it is not. That stuff is invented for the comfort of the usually fully sighted and able-bodied speaker whose culture views blindness and disability as painful and tragic and not the people who live with it every day.

  3. Florian Beijers

    I remember a time where it was actually referred as ‘differently enabled’ , at least around these parts. There’s more awkwardness to be had in language like this pertaining to disabilities. A blind man can’t say his wife is beautiful or that he will see someone later just like a woman in a wheelchair can’t say she’s going for a quick walk around the block without getting strange looks. It’s a shame in 2014 this is still this much of a problem.

  4. Stomme poes

    There’s a reason for all the person-first stuff: someone, somewhere, doesn’t like the straight-forward version. It’s either deeply offensive to them, or you’re “being privileged” or whatever. Nobody wins. We’re either assholes or hoop-jumpers.

    Example: http://accessibility.net.nz/blog/why-i-do-not-like-the-word-lame/

    Some people like direct talk, but some don’t. Unfortunately, that means that we each need to keep track of each and every individual and know which way to talk to each of them in the special way necessary.

    Me, I’m too lazy to be nice, that’s why I’m an asshole. But good to see I wouldn’t be offending *everyone*, I was never good at dancing around languages anyway.

    • Jonathan Mosen

      I think there’s a difference between “direct talk” and offensive talk. Words like “lame”, “Retarded” and indeed “blind” when it is used to mean “ignorant” as I’ve blogged elsewhere here, reflect just how marginalised disabled people are in society. So I’m in full agreement with discomfort over how many people seem to be using the word “lame” to mean disappointing or substandard these days.

      • Stomme poes

        What surprised me in the “lame” article was mostly that it’s apparently actually used to describe people somewhere… in my lexicon, in all my groups, it’s never meant people (like “Oriental” describes rugs not people, or “Grecian” describes architecture and not people), even though I know it originally started out that way (way before I was born). So, had I not read that article, it would have *never* occurred to me that calling a thing “lame” would mean something to someone, say, missing a leg.

        I still know that it ultimately doesn’t matter: no matter *what* we say, or *how* we say it, it will deeply offend *someone*. “Lame” was apparently totally obvious to you as a bad word, while to me it was totally Not Obvious. And it’s not a matter of not knowing anyone with issues, plenty of vets in our family.

        I still can’t blame goverments or anyone else for the dancing around language, because they’re just trying to piss off the fewest people, and as a servant-body of the people, it has to try. Me, I’ll get it wrong every time (I think my comment above shows that), and many of us suck at dancing. We do it badly. It’s nowhere near the same as deliberately being offensive– to do that, you at least need to know the word is a problem to the person you’re saying it to, for the purpose of people an asshole. And then you can be obliviously an asshole, where you simply don’t listen when someone tells you the word(s) is a problem. But someone (a group of someones) told the government to say “people with”. http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20111030141353/http://odi.dwp.gov.uk/inclusive-communications/representation/language.php and look– they listened. They did what they should– they were told to “put people first”, “don’t define by disability”.

        There is no win here. I’m not saying it’s only either the extremes of Ridiculous Eggshells or Total Asshole, but that even in the supposed “happy medium”, you’re still either dancing or an asshole to someone, probably a lot of someones. :/

      • Stomme poes

        Hm, re-reading my earlier comment, it is pretty assholey, because I basically said we shouldn’t even try. That’s wrong, we should. I shouldn’t be lazy. I grew up calling things that sucked “gay” and totally managed to remove that from my lexicon because I heard from more than one person that it made them feel shitty, and there’s always another word we can use instead.

        It just feels as if it’s still always wrong. I agreed with the original article, it does sound/feel very awkward when reading/hearing “people-first” talk, but it’s someone’s attempt at doing the right thing.

        So what is their next step?

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