People First

There’s an emphasis in the special needs community (and beyond) to use what’s called “people-first” language. It’s an important nuance in conversation that puts the person before the disability: i.e. instead of referring to someone as a “Down’s child,” you would refer to them as a “child with Down syndrome.” They are, of course, a child first.

I thought about this recently in how this idea not just applies to language, but to mindset. How we tend to label, perceive, and observe everyone around us—even with the best of intentions.

It is hard to always see people as human first, when their behavior or dress or lifestyle or whatever-else is somehow distracting to us. And then we criticize. Or judge. Or write-off.

One of my favorite quotes is often attributed to Mother Teresa: “If you judge someone, you have no time to love them.” It’s something I repeat to myself often.

I’ve found when I can apply not just people-first language, but a people-first mentality to everyone I meet, I am much more open, selfless and kind. I am less skeptical and more compassionate. Less fearful and more connective. Less judgmental, more loving.

We’re all humans first—a condition that makes each of us worthy of life, love, compassion, connection. And on this level, we are all so very much the same, wishing others would see us for who we are, first.


  1. Delores Townsend

    This is so true. My 4 children were born within 5 years, My daughter with Down syndrome was the second. I was so busy, I don’t think I had time to treat her differently, and she had the other children to model after and teach her. God always has a plan, I believe!

  2. At Kinergy Heath we deal with this issue every day in the context of transforming how healthcare is delivered. Too often the doctors talk about the “patient”, who has XYZ disease. If we truly want to be heard, we are not patients but people – mothers, artists, writers, free spirits, who happen to have an illness that limits our ability to be who we want to be. I want to be treated as myself, a woman who has goals and responsibilities that are being impacted by my disease. Help me to live my life and reduce that impact. How can someone else possibly know the right treatment if all they view is the disease or the disability? The right treatment for me is the one that let’s me continue to be me and may not be the correct treatment for someone else.

    Person-first language is a terrific way to talk about the pervasive problem of engaging with someone who is ill or disabled. It gets us away from the labels like “patient” or “special needs” and reminds us all to think first of the individual.

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