"Person first," "person centered," and autonomy

When I advised the staff that among other changes in the 2017 Associated Press Stylebook was a preference to avoid words like "alcoholic" and "addict," and use constructions such as "people with addiction," I got disbelieving pushback.

But this is simply one more iteration of AP's long-standing adoption of the "people first" language dominant in health care, social services, and education. Such language seeks to avoid categorizing people as disorders. A person is not "disabled" or—horrors, "handicapped"*—but "has a disability."


An example: For years the AP Stylebook has advised not to say that a person is "confined to a wheelchair," but instead "uses a wheelchair," because, sensibly, the wheelchair enables a mobility that would otherwise be absent.

So far, so good. We shouldn't be reducing human beings to categories.


But an article by Alex Kapitan at Radical Copy Editor points out that the situation becomes more complex when the advocates of "people first" can be seen dictating to the very people they seek to support. The whole article is worth your time and consideration, but this passage is salient:

"A few years ago I received an email from someone who scolded me for writing 'transgender people' in a recent piece. 'The appropriate term is "people who identify as transgender," ' she informed me. I was stunned. Why in the name of all that's holy was someone who clearly wasn't trans and likely didn't even know any trans people writing to me—a trans person—and telling me I was using the wrong language to refer to myself and my community? [emphasis added].

"Because #personfirstlanguage. This person had internalized the rule that you had to put the word person first, and she was on a crusade to make sure everyone else followed this rule, too.

"What I didn't know at the time was that my disabled friends experience these sorts of paternalistic and frankly dehumanizing comments and 'corrections' from presumably well-meaning people every day. 'You're not a disabled person, you're a person with a disability.' 'You're not autistic, you're a person with autism spectrum disorder.'

"When a language rule—which was created specifically to respect people's agency and personhood—gets in the way of actually respecting the person in front of you, it's time to ditch the rule."

This is where "political correctness" gets up people's noses. Properly considered, what has come to be called "political correctness" is merely courtesy or treating people with respect. But when it becomes an orthodoxy, a petty tyranny of the bien pensant lecturing on how to think and talk, resistance to scolding builds up.

"Person first" should include enough scope to allow people to identify themselves as they choose  what Alex Kapitan calls "person-centered." That would honor autonomy.

*And "crippled" is right out.