PERSON-FIRST LANGUAGE

We use person-first language. Do you?

“The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and lightning bug.” Mark Twain

A person is a person first, followed by his or her condition. At St. Patrick Center, we say “person experiencing homelessness.” We don’t say “homeless person.”

This best practice is called person-first language and it’s fairly new. It will take a while before it becomes the rule, not the exception. To help in this effort, St. Patrick Center wants to inform and educate our community of support.

Let’s talk about the WHY

Why use person-first language? So many reasons. Here are a few:

— We are all people. Each of us has a different name, face, story and experience. We have unique thoughts, feelings and goals.

— We’re all members of the human community—parents, sons and daughters, grandparents, veterans, friends, neighbors and co-workers.

— We are more than what we experience at any given time. Homelessness, for example, is a temporary situation. A person who is homeless used to have a home and will again in the future. People are not “less than” themselves because they are experiencing hardships.

— The words we use affect how we see and understand our world. How we talk about people influences perceptions, attitudes and actions, which in turn affect practices, policies and more.

— We gain more by being positive than negative. This is essential when gathering support for our mission—for programs and services that help people improve their lives.

Simply put, we humanize, not dehumanize. We offer dignity, not shame. We focus on a person’s strengths and capabilities rather than his or her conditions.

A bit more about labels

It’s not a good idea to label people. Labels cause emotional reactions and reinforce negative stereotypes. They affect our ability to identify with others and create barriers to understanding.

Calling someone a “homeless person” evokes feelings of sadness and hopelessness. Saying a person is “experiencing homelessness” conveys that we can provide him/her with help to solve a problem.

Just as we would avoid using racial or other discriminating slurs, we should avoid using negative labels. We should not use words that imply tragedy, such as “afflicted with,” “suffers,” “victim,” “prisoner” and “unfortunate.”

And even though it’s in the Bible, we should not use the phrase, “least among us.” Who are we to judge?

In short, it’s “us,” not “them.”  It’s not “these people” or “those people.” Let’s show the same compassion that we would show to a friend or family member.

What’s right and what’s wrong?

People are people first and should not be defined by their problems or diagnoses. These examples apply to both a single “person” and plural “people”:

Correct
— Person experiencing homelessness
— Person who is homeless
— Person who is poor
— Person with substance use disorder
— Person with mental illness
— Person with a cognitive disability (or diagnosis)
— Person with a physical disability
— Person who walks with crutches (or uses a wheelchair)
— Child or teen in the foster care system

Incorrect
— Homeless person
— The homeless
— Poor person
— Alcoholic
— Drug addict
— Mentally ill (also emotionally disturbed, insane, crazy, brain damaged, mentally retarded)
— Disabled, handicapped, crippled
— Foster care kid

Think before you speak (or type)

Join us in the use of person-first language. It’s important to inform and educate others. Choosing our words carefully brings new partners to the mission.

When you tell people about person-first language, you’ll find that they appreciate the opportunity to learn and better support people in need.

Yes, using person-first language takes more words. Tweets and other character-limited content need to be carefully crafted and headlines are a bit longer, but that’s OK because person-first language is the right thing to do.

Try it. If you slip up, try again. It will get easier each time, until the day when you speak person-first language without even realizing that you did.