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Thursday, May 23, 2024
The Observer

We need to start using people-first language. Here’s why. 

As a new anthropology major, I am eager to explore the various subcategories of discipline, including, but not limited to the sociocultural and linguistic aspects of study. And in this, the first week (or so) of classes, my mind has already been opened to the power behind the language used within the area of study consequences that go beyond the classroom.

Academia has historically led the way in terms of linguistic and cultural shifts. A more recent and hotly-debated emergence is, of course, the creation of Critical Theory in sociology, expansion to Critical Race Theory (CRT) in legal studies in law schools across the country, and its (more controversial) recent adaptation and adoption in elementary, middle and high schools. 

While I recognize that imposing standard habits of the practice onto any external group may be met with opposition, I think the case can be made that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages in changing one particular linguistic norm: identity-first language. 

In the realm of discussing disability, we have in the past labeled people with their disability first. “Blind people.” “Austistic person.” “Disabled person.”  It had even been common practice to omit the term “person” or “people” altogether in favor of using the disability identifier as a noun (i.e. “a paraplegic”). Identity-first language can have the effect of limiting a person’s sense of self to their diagnosis, and that is why it is becoming more and more commonplace to favor people-first language (i.e. a person with a disability). It is important to note here, too, that people-first language does not aim to cast aspersions or pass judgements on things like disability by saying “a victim of autism” or “someone afflicted with blindness.” Its goal is to simply acknowledge the differences in an experience-based way.

I was introduced to this issue of identity-first language in a class centering on the anthropological study of obesity. In this, my very surface-level research, I found that a lot of the messaging on even the WHO and CDC websites to be fascinating, including the framing of obesity as a chronic disease instead of what has typically been a framing of a moral deficiency.  I noticed that obesity, as of late, has been framed in relation to the issue of Covid. The CDC site describes obesity and its effects as comorbidities that could lead to a poor prognosis in the event of a Covid diagnosis. This coupling, the conversation of these two conditions in relation to one another, is what I think has partly driven the expansion of our collective understanding of obesity as something that can be a disability as well as something that is more complex than we had initially thought. This, too, is what I think expands people-first language to this condition. 

So when the CDC and WHO use the newer norm of referring to people experiencing obesity as “people with obesity” instead of “obese people,” I strongly feel that this use of people-first language is much more dignifying in addition to being more accurate. People are not solely defined nor identified by any one aspect of their being, especially if that aspect is a diagnosis. People-first language accounts for this, and it is a long overdue linguistic change. It is high time we change our modes of discussion around disability to acknowledge the individual dignity of every person and their lived experience, however varied from ours. It’s worth the extra syllables.

Alexa Schlaerth is a junior at the University of Notre Dame studying anthropology and linguistics. When she’s not slamming hot takes into her laptop keyboard, she can be found schooling her peers in the daily Wordle and NYT mini crossword, rewatching South Park, or planning her next backpacking trip. As an Angeleno, Alexa enjoys drinking overpriced non dairy iced lattes and complaining about traffic because it’s “like, totally lame.” Alexa can be reached on Twitter at @alexa_schlaerth, or via email at

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.