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Empowering Others through Language

Empowering Others through Language

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Let's talk about how we talk about disabilities and people diagnosed with impairments.

Words are powerful. 

What we say and how we say it can directly impact emotions and confidence — our own and those of the people we communicate with at home, at work and in day-to-day life. Language has the power to bring people up, to push them down, the power to unite and the power to isolate. 

Over time, words can indirectly shape belief systems. Repetitive negative speech can stigmatize groups, cultures and even societies and —with regard to disabilities — can attempt to define a person or group by a single condition. Oftentimes, this type of marginalizing is unintentional.

By simply being more mindful of our word choice, we each have the power to shape our world for the better.

Disabilities & Person-first Language

Rather than emphasizing a disability or condition a person is living with, person-centered language puts the emphasis on the person. This “person-first” language puts the person’s name first, followed by the condition the person is living with. Using this simple variation of speech structure implies that the person is not defined by his/her condition.

For example, the term “disabled” is commonly used when speaking about a person who uses a mobility aid to overcome mobility challenges. You might say or hear “Fred is disabled,” or read “52-year-old disabled patient.” Person-centered language recognizes that Fred is a person who has a disability, but also has many other attributes. Fred is not defined by his disability, but the disability is significant in terms of how he is living his life. 

Imagine continuously hearing others say that you are disabled, but nothing else. While it may be true that you were diagnosed with a disability, there is so much more that characterizes you and that’s a significant part of your personality.

How can we better communicate using person-centered language? Try these five strategies to be more mindful when talking about others who are living with a medical condition or disability.

1.    “Person-first” Rule.
Put the “person” first in a statement, followed by what is being communicated about that person.  For example: Linda is living with multiple sclerosis. Jamie is managing a substance abuse disorder. Josie is diagnosed with an intellectual disability. 

2.    Use person-centered adjectives. 
Oftentimes, people describe others as “suffering” or “dying from” health conditions. For the person managing a complicated condition, repetitive use of these types of words can unintentionally create a belief that the words are actually true.  

For example, you might say or hear: “Sheila is suffering from down syndrome,” or “Tom is dying from Alzheimer’s disease.” A more person-centered approach would be to re-frame the situation to reflect the person’s efforts in managing the condition. Instead, you would say: “Sheila is living with Down syndrome,” or “Tom is facing Alzheimer ’s disease.”

In both examples, purposely choosing to use words that reflect the individual’s perseverance has a much more positive impact on the communication — in the present and over time.

3.    Avoid summarizing statements that include the word “is.”
How often have you heard (or said) something like “Heather is an alcoholic” or “That girl is just crazy”? 

While emotions may trigger us to speak before reflecting on the impact of our words — especially when we are personally impacted — this is not person-centered language. Both examples are reducing the person to a single word. 

The word “alcoholic” may be demoralizing to someone who is struggling with a complicated disease. The word “crazy” has a negative connotation when used to generalize someone with a mental health condition, and can be hurtful to people living with the condition, as well as their family members.  

A more person-centered approach would be: “Heather is a person diagnosed with a substance abuse disorder” or “She is a person living with a mental health condition or disability.” This language separates any negative generalizations from the actual person.

4.    Avoid slang or outdated language.
Person-centered language is modern language. Offensive slang and outdated words are hurtful and are highly inappropriate in the context of speaking about disabilities. For example: The term “retarded” should not be used when speaking about a person and their abilities; also, “mental retardation” was replaced years ago by the condition “intellectual or developmental disability.” Other hurtful and inconsiderate slang terms include “druggie” or “pill-popper.” In person-centered speaking, these words have no place.  

5.    Practice the positive.
When I first heard about person-first language, it made complete sense to me but it was difficult to incorporate because of the rooted communication patterns I’d used for so long. With practice over time, using the person-first structure became easier but I definitely made mistakes.

The beauty in person-centered language is the desire to communicate about others in such a way that it promotes a positive environment, no matter the topic. 


Social worker Crystal BrooksSMH Inpatient Rehab Case Manager Crystal Brooks, BSFCS, MSW, is a registered clinical social worker intern and is focused on health education and counseling. A member of SMH’s Diversity Council, she specializes in mental health and stress management for those with diabetes and their families. Her passion to help for those living with chronic disease is rooted in her own experiences living with chronic disease.

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