To Use Person-First Language or Intentionally Not Use Person-First Language, That Is the Question

"When speaking or writing about a person who is blind or visually impaired, it’s important to use person-first language: ‘the boy who is blind’ is preferred over ‘the blind boy’," I distinctly remember learning in my coursework to prepare to become a teacher of students with visual impairments.

Here I am, a decade-and-a-half later, writing for FamilyConnect and making the daily decision, "To use person-first-language or intentionally not use it?"

As you, family members and teachers, talk and write, I know you also wrestle with this question. I wonder if you’ll hear my take on the matter and more importantly, share your take. I want to learn from you.

In most cases, I agree with what I was originally taught; person-first language seems the obvious, respectful choice, as a person is not defined by any one feature and especially not by something he or she doesn’t have. However, I don’t want to have my opinion set in concrete, especially considering I, myself, am not blind or visually impaired. I don’t get the last word here. I want to raise the questions:

  1. What do people who are visually impaired think about person-first language?
  2. Doesn’t it depend on context?

Consensus on Person-First Language

It’s important to understand the preferences of adults and young people who are blind, particularly the one in your or my home, workplace, school, or community, and to be willing to use his or her preference; I say this because there is no consensus on the matter and your family member will have a personal preference.

Your family member may find person-first language most respectful, or he may feel like that of the deaf community, acknowledging a difference or a disability is an identifying feature, one that needn’t be avoided or concealed. In other words, to many individuals, saying "the guy who is blind" instead of "the blind guy" is declaring being blind is something you don’t want to be identified with—such as myself, a redhead, not wanting people to tip-toe around the issue by awkwardly saying "the lady with red hair" instead of "the redhead." Not a great example on my part, but it does make the point that red hair is not something I want to be disassociated from, and well-adjusted folks with visual impairments don’t want to be disassociated from vision loss.

Evaluate the Context

In addition to acknowledging the preference of your family member, I think it’s important to evaluate the context.

  • If you or I are talking to or writing to an individual who has not yet adjusted to blindness, perhaps it’s most important to use person-first language.
  • If you or I are talking or writing in a professional setting, such as at an IEP meeting, perhaps person-first language is the best choice as it reminds the educational staff that your child is first a child.
  • If you or I are identifying an individual we don’t know well, such as "the girl at the picnic table," person-first language may be the best choice as we don’t yet know the girl’s preference.
  • If you or I are talking with teachers, daycare workers, doctors, etc. who are unfamiliar with blindness, perhaps it’s best to use person-first language as the listener may need to be reminded that the individual is more similar to a sighted peer than different.

FamilyConnect’s Take on the Matter

FamilyConnect generally uses people-first language because we are talking to a large audience, many of which could use the reminder that individuals who are blind are first individuals, more similar to sighted peers than different.

There are intentional scenarios when we write "visually impaired children," "blind child," etc. because we want our articles and blogs to appear in search engines, such as Google, when a user types "blind child," and at times, it’s awkward to write "the child who is blind" and "daughter/son who is blind or visually impaired" a handful of times in a paragraph. The wording is bulky!

What Is Your Take?

That is our take; we’d love to have you join the discussion. Hearing a variety of opinions and preferences educates us all.

Resources on Blindness

Learning About Blindness

What Do You Want the World to Know About Blindness?

Questions and Answers Regarding Your Child’s Low Vision