Person-First Language

Hey readers, happy blogmas day 9! Today I want to talk about person-first language. In OT school, we learned about how communication is really important between us and our clients. Speaking person-first means using language that conveys that you are speaking to a person, not a diagnosis. The point is that a person’s disability or life situation, whether permanent or temporary, does not define them. This is something that everyone, not just healthcare providers, should think about when they are talking to others. Here are a few main points to consider when using person-first language:


These are a few examples of words/phrases that are not person-first, and some ways to change your language to be person-first. Whether you know someone who experiences a disability, condition, other situation or you do not, you should always refer to people in a way that is person-first.

  • Not preferred: handicap; preferred: accessible
  • Not preferred: wheelchair-bound, wheelchair-dependent; preferred: person who uses a wheelchair
  • Not preferred: disabled person; preferred: person who has a disability
  • Not preferred: mentally ill person; preferred: person who has mental illness
  • Not preferred: person who suffers from _____; preferred: person who is experiencing _____
  • Not preferred: homeless person, addict, alcoholic, etc. preferred: person who is experiencing _____
  • Not preferred: retarded (There is no preferred way to say this. It is derogatory and never acceptable.)

Gender & Sex

These are two different things. Just because a person presents as masculine does not mean they identify as male; just because a person presents as feminine does not mean then identify as female. Here are some definitions:

  • Gender identity: A person’s internal identification of being male, female, or another gender. People may identify as genderless or agender, or somewhere in between.
  • Gender expression: How a person physically expresses their gender identity (e.g. clothing, behavior, voice, hairstyle, etc.)
  • Sex: A person’s biological characteristics assigned at birth as male or female. A person may be assigned as male at birth but identify as female; a person may be assigned as female at birth but identify as male.

This is not a comprehensive list, but it is a good place to get started in understanding the difference between gender and sex.


I have noticed a lot of organizations asking individuals for their preferred pronouns lately, which is awesome! If you aren’t sure what a person’s preferred pronoun is, it is probably safest to just say “they”. Only say “he/she” and “him/her” if you are positive. Here are some alternatives:

  • They – use this if you are unsure
  • Hir – a person may prefer this to him or her
  • Sie or ze – a person may prefer this to he or she

In regards to everything I mentioned, when in doubt, just ask! In general, a person would probably prefer to be asked what they prefer to be called rather than having you assume and get it wrong. Try to be aware of how your words may affect those around you.

Thanks for reading! Be sure to check out my previous blogmas posts, and stay tuned for another post tomorrow.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s