What is People-First Language?

Recently I wrote an article for my university’s newspaper. While it was specifically written for the student population there, I think that people in the T1D community can learn a lot about the power of language by questioning how we personally identify. Enjoy!


In an effort to create an increasingly inclusive culture, Quest students often tirelessly shift our language towards politically correct terminology. For example, in conversations about gender and sexuality, we fight assumptive, binary, and heteronormative vocabulary. This shift in language can at times result in spurts of frustration or passion, but most notably, in empathy.  Most of us have, at some point, been labeled thoughtlessly, giving us the ability to step into the shoes of a person of a different label with a similar experience. It is for this reason that I, a person with a disability, propose to you (Quest students) that our community adopt people-first language, for now.

People-first language (PFL) is a linguistic prescription catered towards increasing inclusive language for individuals living with disabilities. Using PFL I would identify as a “person with diabetes,” rather than a “diabetic.” To be honest, when I first heard of this movement, I thought it was excessive. I have spent 20 years of my life being called a diabetic, I don’t find it insulting, and it’s not a false statement. Every person has the right to place the emphasis on whichever part(s) of their identity they choose, and this is particularly powerful because ability and our definitions of ability are not an individual’s choice. PFL is one way, and another is identity-first language (IFL), with which I would identify as a “diabetic person”

  The evolution of PFL encompasses the original movement as well as a countermovement, IFL. The original movement started in the early 1980s with the Denver Principles, which were written by an advisory committee of People with AIDS. Prior to the committee’s recommendations, a statement includes, “We condemn attempts to label us as “victims,” a term which implies defeat, and we are only occasionally “patients,” a term which implies passivity, helplessness, and dependence upon the care of others. We are “People With AIDS.”

The PFL movement states that non-PFL highlights disability first as opposed to the person themselves. The movement looks towards intersectionality, and points out that each person living with a disability lives a different experience. Assigning a non-person first label, like “diabetic” can reduce a person (who inevitably has many facets to their identity) to their disability.

While PFL raises a convincing argument, IFL acknowledges the social construction of disability. Supporters of IFL state that dissociating disability from identity reinforces negative and derogatory notions of disability. For this reason, individuals who are of this perspective often reclaim identifiers such as “diabetic.” The arguments for PFL and IFL both point towards a powerful question; how does the language that we use enforce norms with regards to ability?

I interviewed Krista Lambie, Manager of Accessibility, Equity and Career services, about how these language prescriptions are or can be applied at Quest. We spoke about how Quest’s resources use PFL because, “it is currently the most prevalent, best practice.” In the interview, Lambie also provided general tips for the Quest community. The first was, “use what people identify themselves.” This sounds simple enough, but it can be challenging and uncomfortable to ask someone about their personal preferences, let alone about their health. To this, Lambie suggested identifying what you’re doing and saying and why you’re doing it, when appropriate. By acknowledging that there are different ways for people to identify, we create safe spaces for people to identify as they wish. As Lambie so eloquently stated, “understand that our language with relation to protected characteristics and human rights is ever evolving… Be open to that being reframed for you when necessary.”

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