Person-first– or people-first– language (PFL) is the default language etiquette expected in technical communication when referring to varying members of the disability community. This prevalent language format surrounding the disability community is not only encouraged but required, as PFL is considered the most respectful and appropriate style for such a concept. Technical communicators specifically must remain up-to-date on developments in PFL so that their writing will remain academically correct and socially aware.
What Is Person-First Language?
Person-First Language relies on the basic idea that an individual’s personhood is deserving of the utmost respect and should be referred to before any additional descriptors such as a disability. For example, when referring to an individual who uses a wheelchair, it is inappropriate to say “the wheelchair-bound girl.” Instead, say “the girl who uses a wheelchair.” This shift in descriptor placement allows for the following:
- Respectfully emphasizes the word “girl” first, rather than “wheelchair,” thus, highlighting the individual’s personhood, rather than disability
- Intentionally uses the individual’s disability only as a way to further describe said individual, rather than allowing the disability to be the focal point of the description
- Consciously avoids the word “bound,” as wheelchairs do not bind or limit individuals, but instead allow additional movement
Furthermore, note that disabilities should only be highlighted in an individual’s description when relevant to the conversation’s context. Similar to how one would not mention the length or color of someone’s hair if not important to a story’s context, disabilities should be treated the same.
Why Is Person-First Language Important in Technical Communication?
In technical communication, adhering to the universal style guides and rules introduced by credible sources such as Purdue OWL and Modern Language Association is of the utmost importance. Not only is this adherence important so that a writer’s technique and vocabulary stay up to date on recent developments in the linguistic community, but also so that writers remain inclusive, respectful, and equitable in their writing. Credible sources like those listed previously endorse person-first language, along with other person-first language-adjacent concepts.
In addition, failure to adhere to this type of language standard may be seen as offensive or under-educated, which is certainly not the goal of any technical communicator. For example, articles including descriptions of members of the disability community that do not follow the PFL guidelines may reflect poorly on the author’s vocabulary range and levels of social awareness. Thus, compliance with standards such as PFL set by educators within the communities described is essential to not only an author’s written piece but to the author’s reputation as well.
Additional Person-First Language Rules to Consider
Another great example of what not to do when writing about individuals with disabilities is referring to said individuals as victims of their disability. For example, to mention a person with acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) by calling them “an AIDS victim” is highly inappropriate and demeaning to the individual. Even in a person-first context, referring to a disability as suffering rather than an aspect of one’s life is considered offensive and disrespectful. An example of this mistake would be to refer to a person with AIDS as an “individual suffering from AIDS,” which is still demeaning.
Avoid Calling Disabilities “Abnormal”
The word “abnormal” is outdated. Instead, consider using the word “atypical.” This word is unbiased and up-to-date as the approved word to further describe people with disabilities. Atypical is simply defined as not representative of a type, group, or class.
Avoid Referring to Individuals Without Disabilities as “Healthy”
Alternatively, individuals without disabilities should be referred to as stated previously or simply as “non-disabled.” Other descriptors such as “able-bodied” and “normal” further a divide between people with disabilities compared to people without disabilities. Instead, terms like “non-disabled” are equally descriptive while also showing respect to the disability community.
Person-First Language: Final Thoughts
Like everyday conversation, the language used in technical communication is ever-evolving. Due to this fact, staying up-to-date on the best way to describe minority groups is imperative for skilled technical communicators. Updates on the changes within the technical communication field will continue to be highlighted and published on TCLoc’s Master’s blog, so be sure to check it out!
The following list is composed of great additional resources for becoming better informed on the advancements of Person-First Language in the technical communication field.
Getting Started With Person-First Language by Michelle Foley, Cristina Santamaria Graff
Person-first and Identity-first Language Choices by Erin Hawley
How to Write Person First Language by Ohio Developmental Disabilities Council
About the Author
Ella Goodwin is currently a student at Louisiana Tech University studying Technical Writing. As she begins her second year with Louisiana Tech, she intends to continue learning about advancements in the technical communications field through her internship with the University of Strasbourg. For questions regarding this article, contact Ella on her Linkedin.