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5 Tips For Using People First Language in Your Daily Practice

Nurses Article   (852 Views 5 Comments 949 Words)
by Melissa Mills Melissa Mills, BSN (Member) Writer Innovator Verified

Melissa Mills has 20 years experience as a BSN and works as a Freelance Writer, Nurse Case Manager, Professor.

109 Likes; 6 Followers; 89 Articles; 19,555 Visitors; 240 Posts


How we talk or chart about our patients is just as important as how we speak to them. Using people first language places the person ahead of the diagnosis or disability. Discover five ways to use people first language in your daily practice.

5 Tips For Using People First Language in Your Daily Practice

Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter - ‘tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” This is precisely how you must think of people first language. While it isn’t wrong to say, “the asthmatic,” “the stroke patient,” or “the autistic child,” It indeed isn’t correct or the best use of your written or spoken words.

Here’s a quick review of using people first language and how you can put it to work in your documentation, reports, and other healthcare-related writing and speech.

What is People First Language?

It might sound simplistic, but people first language means that you put the person before the disability or diagnosis. When writing or speaking about a person, you should use words that describe what a person has, not what the person is. A few examples include:

Say - "I’m caring for Michael, a child with autism." Don’t say - "I’m caring for Michael, an autistic child."

Say - "Jane uses a wheelchair." Don’t say - "Jane is wheelchair bound."

Say - "I work with people who have disabilities." Don’t say - "I work with the disabled."

History of People First Language

The fight for equal treatment of people with disabilities began in the 1970s. Public Law 94-142 was enacted in 1976 to include children with disabilities in public school systems. The next notable change for people first language came in 1990, with the passing of The Americans with Disabilities Act. This law prohibited discrimination based on disability in jobs, transportation, and schools. It offered protection to more than 40 million children and adults with disabilities. Language in previous laws changed from “handicapped” to “people with disabilities,” too.

While we have made significant strides to limit the disparities for people with disabilities, we still have more progress to make.

Understanding the Power of Language

Words are powerful. They boost spirits, cut barriers, and connect people. When used in the wrong way, they can cause others to disconnect and withdrawn from their surroundings. Without even knowing it, healthcare providers can create barriers with their written or spoken words. Consider these two ways to document the same information:

Non-People First Language:

Stroke patient, 61 years old arrived to the floor at 801 am. He is myopic and has a cancerous history. He is handicapped with left-sided weakness of upper and lower extremities and emotionally disturbed. The patient will likely be wheelchair bound during the hospital stay.

People First Language

Mr. Jones, a 61-year-old male with recent stroke symptoms arrived to the floor at 801 pm. He wears eyeglasses and has a history of prostate cancer. The assessment revealed left-sided weakness of upper and lower extremity. He is tearful when discussing his condition. Due to the weakness, he will be using a wheelchair when out of bed.

These two passages conveyed the same information. However, by applying people first language, the second example expresses compassion, empathy, and inclusion. Here are several tips that will help you use people first language in your daily practice.

Offer Respect

When communicating about people with a disability, think about how you would want that person to be described if they were your mother, father, child, or close friend. Would you want someone to say “the deaf boy in room 3 needs help,” or would you prefer to hear someone say, “the boy who is hearing impaired in room 3 needs help.” It’s not difficult to use people first language, but it might take a little effort.

Remember the Person

Always lead with who the person is first. Use words such as person or individual to remain politically correct. You could also use their name,  such as “Mr. Jones” or “Richard.” By using their name or a term like “person” you are removing the idea that their diagnosis is more important than who they are as an individual.

Avoid Pity

When you use words like “handicapped” or describe that a person is “suffering from” a diagnosis, it suggests pity. Invoking this emotion indicates that the person living with a disability is living a life of less quality.

Talk About It

If you are uncertain how to refer to a person - just ask. It might be uncomfortable the first time or two, but once you do this a few times, it will come easier. Imagine that it is similar to asking a person their name - you want to know because you care. Describing a person who has a disability is the same.

Ask them how they prefer you discuss their unique qualities with them and about them with others. You can also find a People First Language Style Guide that offers guidance on how populations of people with specific disabilities prefer to be described.

Focus on Abilities

Emphasize what your patient can do, instead of focusing on what they can’t do. Instead of saying, “Mr. Jones is unable to ambulate.” Consider saying, “Mr. Jones can independently go from lying to sitting and needs assistance with ambulation.” In both examples, you’re saying the same thing, but the second describes Mr. Jones’ abilities, not his disabilities.

Do you have experience with people first language? Do you find it difficult to use? Leave your comments below so that we can discuss this critical topic further.


Melissa is a professor, medical writer, and business owner. She has been a nurse for over 20 years and enjoys combining her nursing knowledge and passion for the written word. She is available for writing, editing, and coaching services. You can see more of her work at www.melissamills.net.

109 Likes; 6 Followers; 89 Articles; 19,555 Visitors; 240 Posts

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VivaLasViejas has 20 years experience as a ASN, RN and works as a Retired/Disabled Nurse and Blogger.

339 Likes; 8 Followers; 141 Articles; 247,028 Visitors; 9,526 Posts

I am a person with a disability who really doesn't mind being referred to in the old-fashioned way. I use "I'm bipolar" and "I have bipolar disorder" interchangeably. I don't appreciate being called "the bipolar in room 2216" however. When I was nursing I never referred to patients as "the stroke" or "the paraplegic," I used their name before their diagnosis, as in "This is Mr. Smith who has had a stroke" or, in report, "Mrs. Jones is paraplegic". Subtle differences, to be sure, but perhaps not politically correct anymore even though no offense is meant.

I'm glad more attention is being paid to person-first language, however. It's far less stigmatizing. It may take a little time for everyone to get on the same page, but progress is being made. Good article.

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Angie Felts has 10 years experience as a ADN and works as a Owner Administrator Author.

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I appreciate this article very much. We need to focus on the human being in front of us and their diagnosis or circumstances should not proceed them.

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Davey Do has 35 years experience and works as a Behavioral Health RN.

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Good article, Prof Melissa, that reminds me of something two people said to me:

"I am not my illness."

"My history is not my story."

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Elektra6 has 13 years experience as a BSN and works as a Home Health RN.

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Great article. Thank you!

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