Put the People First (Usually)

Illustration of a journalist asking a person with a cat sleeping on their head, "And how do you want us to refer to you?" The person replies, "As a person with cat head. Thanks for asking!"

Here at We ❤ Health Literacy Headquarters, we get lots of questions about how to refer to people with disabilities or health conditions. What are the right terms to use? How can I make sure I don’t offend members of my target audience?

These questions get at the heart of big topics like health, disease, and identity — so, as health communicators, we need to be particularly aware of them.

Generally speaking, there are 2 schools of thought:

  • People-first language means emphasizing the word “person” when talking about someone’s disability, condition, or identity. This means you would say “a person who is blind” instead of “a blind person.” In short, you put the “person” first.
  • Identity-first language is a response to the people-first language movement. It reflects the idea that separating the “person” from the identity implies a sense of shame. For example, most culturally Deaf people feel that Deafness is an important part of who they are — so they prefer the term “Deaf person” instead of “person who is Deaf.”

For many groups, people-first language has become the standard, and it’s a good overall rule of thumb — but it may not be the best choice for every group.

So, how can you make sure you’re getting it right? Simple: ask people in your target audience how they refer to themselves and how they want people to refer to them.

The bottom line: When writing about a disability or health condition, people-first language is a good rule of thumb — but it’s always best to ask your audience what they prefer.