The Power of Person First Language, Part 2

by Rachael Kenney
September 10, 2010

Image of Rachael Kenney

Recently, I blogged about the importance of using person-first language. Person-first language means to put the person before the descriptor, like saying “people experiencing homelessness” instead of “the homeless” or “homeless people.”

Once I was accustomed to using person first language, I started to think about how I could help others be more aware of the impact of language. One night I was in yoga class and the instructor asked us to sit “Indian style.” Another students spoke up and said that “Indian style” was offensive. She suggested “cross legged” would have been better. I agreed with the student, but I remember how uncomfortable the exchange made the rest of the class feel.

Because I am highly conscious of person-first language, I notice when people don’t use it. Recently, I attended a conference, and was surprised to hear presenters – people who have dedicated their lives to working to end homelessness – using the expression “the homeless,” to lump people experiencing homelessness together. I wanted to say something to them, but I didn’t know how to do so without creating a very awkward situation.

Besides, I’m not perfect. I’ve worked for the Homelessness Resource Center for three and a half years, but I still need to search my documents to make sure I wrote “people who experience homelessness” instead of “the homeless.” Every time I find “the homeless” in a document I want to throw up my hands in exasperation. Who am I to correct others when I make the same mistakes?

But, I believe it’s important to keep trying. Language is important, as it frames the way we perceive the world, and this has effects on the people we interact with. I continue to model person-first language. I ensure that the people who I supervise use it, too.

I’m learning that language can cause change. Last night, I was talking with my partner, who does not work in human services. In the midst of our conversation he said “consumers” instead of “the homeless.” I smiled. It made me realize that my language has an impact on how the people around me think about people who experience homelessness.

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Category: HRC Insight