Person First, Disease After:

(Last updated on: November 17, 2021)

Our Words Can Heal Others…

Put the Person First

“Person First” is shorthand for a special way to talk about chronic disease. In fact, about anything that makes another person’s life more difficult, day by day or year by year. The idea is, when we speak, we want to identify the person first, and the disease secondarily.

Where Did This Blog Come From, Anyway?

My attention was drawn to this topic by a position statement from the Obesity Action Coalition (OAC). Their statement basically says, words matter.

We’ve all been exposed to this concept in the case of disabilities. Today, we don’t refer to a person as “disabled,” as if that term sums up their total existence. Instead, we refer to a “person with a disability.” That is, the person is not the same as the disability; the disability is simply something that a person may have.

OAC points out that people with a weight problem are most often labeled by their condition. When someone calls them “fat” or “obese” it hurts their self-image and, ironically, makes it less likely that they will take steps to control the condition. Treating the weight as something they have (and therefore, not the core of who they are) makes it easier for them to tackle it.

“Doc Gumshoe” expresses it well:

It is one thing to be a person with epilepsy, who is from time to time affected by epileptic seizures, and another thing to be an “epileptic,” whose affliction is the sum total of his/her identity.

Obesity Is Not the Only Sensitive Topic

The OAC statement points out that both the American Psychological Association and the American Medical Association have rules about how to talk about chronic conditions. Here are the key principles:

  • When we speak or write, we should put people first, not their disability.
  • We should try to avoid the word “victim,” or words that suggest helplessness such as “suffering from” or “afflicted with.”
  • Let’s avoid euphemisms such as “physically challenged” or “special,” which fool no one at all.

The APA and AMA rules are intended for health care professionals, but they have value in social settings too.

A Catalog of Many Medical Conditions

I was fascinated at OAC’s search-engine approach for measuring the prevalence of “person first” in public media concerning obesity. I decided to reproduce their data, for an even larger catalog of conditions that everyone prefers not to have. I added a dozen additional medical terms and Google-searched a number of descriptive phrases, in both “person first” and “condition first” formats.

This study is just a for instance: I didn’t consider every possible term. And I avoided search text like “diabetics,” because Google interprets such terms as meaning everything related to diabetes, rather than a s a label identifying people.

To organize the results, I divided the number of major search hits for “person first” terms and divided it by the number of “condition first” hits.

This table shows my findings, sorted by decreasing ratios in the last column (“People / Condition Quotient”):

person first

The Scorecard: How “People First” Are We All?

The conditions above are of various types: some are inborn, and others are medically treatable although not always cureable.

So, exactly how “people first” are we, the Internet-connected world, as measured by this quick-and-dirty search count?

  • For the first five conditions above, “people first” search terms dominate by factors of roughly 10 to 100. The guardians of our language have taught us to speak gently to folks who have these symptoms.
  • For the next six conditions, the people-oriented terms outnumber the phrases that emphasize the disease – but not by very much!
  • At the bottom of the list, obesity and blindness are most often described first by the condition, and secondarily by the person who has it.

The conclusion is, that if person-sensitive language really hurts or helps other people, the obesity experts are right to sound an alarm. Only people who are blind suffer more consistently from impersonal labeling than those with obesity.

What I learned: just as words can injure, so they can heal. When we talk about people with chronic conditions, the more we use “people first” descriptions, the more we help them have a positive attitude that boosts their healing.

Image Credits:
From pixabay.com: people shapes by MoteOo, hamburger by Shutterbug75, vegetables by Shutterbug75


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