When I was in graduate school at Brooklyn College back in the late 1990s, I took a class in special education where I was introduced to “people first language.” While I don’t regularly work with youth with disabilities, I’ve adopted people first language as part of my work, college teaching, interactions with and descriptions of the people with whom I work.
Introduced in the late 1980s by advocacy groups in the United States that work with people with disabilities, the basic idea of people first language is to place emphasis on the person, rather than the condition by changing the sentence structure. So rather than “disabled people” or “disabled” the sentence structure becomes: “people with disabilities.” The goal is to avoid dehumanizing (consciously or subconsciously) individuals. It’s also considered a type of disability etiquette. This structure can be applied to any group that is defined by a condition rather than as a people: for example, “veteran experiencing homelessness” as opposed to “homeless veteran.”
So what does this mean for those of us who support, advocate for and work with children and teens who aren’t disabled? Think about how the children and youth we work with often described: “at-risk youth,” “troubled children,” “underprivileged teens,” “low-income kids,” “AIDS babies” …
Do these phrases sound familiar? When someone talks about or describes young people this way, for me it’s like nails on a chalkboard. Descriptions like this perpetuate deficit thinking about our youth. Deficit thinking is the opposite of using an asset-based approach. It’s like looking at the glass half-empty (deficit) as opposed to half-full (asset). In this case, it’s thinking the youth are less than because of the label that gets applied, which are generally associate with deficits, such as “at risk” or “troubled.”In Positive Youth Development, there is an emphasis on using a strengths-based approach, and using people first language is in support of this effort.
It may sometimes feel clunky when making the switch, such as: “young person from a community that is underserved” as opposed to the more common “low-income kid,” but I think it’s worth the effort. Will you give it a try?
Rebecca Fabiano, master of science in education, is the founder and president of Fab Youth Philly, a small, woman-owned business that supports youth-serving organizations and serves as a lab to create programming for and with youth.