Hannah Peters | Staff Writer
What if I told you that a person with diabetes is not a diabetic? What would you think if I said that a person who is addicted to opioids is not an addict?
It’s not as backward as it sounds.
Disabilities, diseases and health conditions touch everyone. Considering a disability is defined by having any sort of limiting condition, it is nearly guaranteed that you will spend at least part of your lifetime with a type of disability or know someone that has one.
In fact, more than 26% of adult Americans have a type of disability, 45% of Americans have at least one chronic disease and 22% of U.S. adults live with a mental illness, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Maybe a family member comes to mind, or perhaps only a co-worker or mutual friend – the fact of the matter is that people living with disadvantages are all around us, and sometimes we don’t even know it.
I didn’t know it.
One of the most important people in my life, my mom, suffered from substance use disorder, PTSD and bipolar disorder and for a large part of my life. I had no idea.
When I look back at that time, I wish I had been aware of the ways to help and encourage her, to show her that her condition has no effect on what she means to me.
This is where we arrive at what’s known as ‘Person-First Language’ (PFL), a type of approach to the language used surrounding people with disabilities, diseases or health conditions. This term refers to the approach of placing the person ahead of a diagnosis.
This means referring to individuals by their personhood first and condition second. For example, the preferred phrasing would be ‘person who is disabled’ instead of ‘a disabled person.’
By orienting a person through what condition they “have” rather than what they “are,” it acknowledges that a particular disability, disease or condition does not define a whole person, just a part of them.
It may not seem very significant, but this kind of language could be the difference between a person feeling accepted, seen or valued and a person feeling rejected, shamed or unworthy.
Take the substance use (the preferred term for addiction) community as an example. The terms often associated with this group carry powerful stigmas. These misconceptions are harmful and counterproductive to recovery, hurting those who have experienced addiction and their loved ones alike.
Perhaps you think it’s justified by their unhealthy behaviors or that shame is somehow effective, but the reality is that stigma is damaging and counterproductive to recovery. Not only is it hurtful for those who have experienced addiction and their loved ones alike, but it also discourages people from seeking help.
Terms as simple as ‘addict’ hold an image that reflect disgrace, contributing to a stigma that only works against the community. And that’s not even mentioning the ones like ‘druggie,’ ‘junkie’ or ‘crackhead.’
Hearing how people talk about and describe those with substance use disorder often makes me question if they would be judgmental of my family.
It’s hard not to wonder what would be different if people had been more accepting and sensitive to my mom’s struggles. She may not have had to fight those demons alone if she had felt accepted. Witnessing first-hand the pain that comes with the insensitivity when people are careless with their words has consequences. Consequences that likely prolonged her recovery journey.
So, pertaining to people struggling with substance abuse, person-first language helps recognize the humanity of others ahead of all else. According to a study from the American Psychological Association, “Experiences of stigma led to internalized stigma, which influenced self-esteem and recovery-related outcomes.”
If you knew that your choice of words had a direct impact on someone’s chances of finding help and recovering, would you think twice before saying them? Incorporating PFL into one’s dialogue is not a simple and easy feat – the words we use become a habit that’s hard to break. Perfection is not expected, but a continuous effort is necessary.
One way to think about it is through the similar efforts being made in the LGBTQ community concerning pronouns, and if that phenomenon proves anything, it’s that change is possible. However, it is also crucial to note that, akin to what the pronoun movement preaches, preference matters. While PFL is widely advocated for, certain groups have expressed they don’t always favor this approach.
These cases show up mainly in the deaf and autistic communities, where some have shown preference for identity-first language. These individuals feel that their condition cannot be separated from who they are and is therefore something to take pride in. The best way to know is to ask, but if preference is not known, it’s best to err on the side of person-first language.
The good news? Awareness is the first step, and if you’ve made it this far, then you’re already there.