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12th October
written by Michelle



The first time I heard about person first language was when I was doing my training to be a special education teacher. We talked about the value of seeing the person before the disability. Instead of saying “an autistic student” we learned to say “a student with autism.” When leading IEP meetings or talking to other teachers we intentionally changed our language. “I have three special education students in my class” was reframed to “I have three students with special needs in my class.”

Some may say, it’s just a matter of semantics. But I believe our semantics directly affect the way we view other people and ourselves. There is something significant and powerful when we choose to see a person first. The words that we use, subtle as they may be, often affect how we feel and think about someone or something. Person first language for the most part has been focussed in the area of special education and disability awareness, but I believe it also is pertinent to people who work, serve or volunteer or simply live cross-culturally.

I have a friend, Jeff, who has been working in Santa Barbara for the last 10 years as an advocate for friends without homes.  Did you notice that? Jeff never says that he works with “the homeless” or has a “homeless ministry?” No, he chooses to honor and acknowledge the people he works with. He calls them friends first. He speaks in front of city councils, churches and non-profit boards to share and brainstorm about community-wide initiatives to help men, women and children without homes. It becomes much more personal when you’re talking about people, about friends and not “the homeless.” He knows that how we talk about someone directly affects how we view them.

This is not just about word choice, but also about power. 

Most, and I say most because I know it by no means includes everyone, but most people who are working cross-culturally are people who have some degree of power and privilege. And with that often comes a “savior complex” that is complicated by pity, good intentions and misunderstanding. I know because I fall into this group. I live it and wrestle with it every day.

And can I tell you what has been one of the best places for me to start? It’s been by paying attention to how I talk about the people I work with and live near.

Ask yourself, how do you talk about the people you work with? Or serve? Or teach? Or write policies for? How do you talk about the people or projects you are raising money for? 

What if instead of saying “poor people” or “poor families,” we said, “people who have limited economic resources” or “families without the means to buy basic necessities?”

What if instead of saying, “my church serves dinner to the homeless every Thanksgiving,” we said, “my church serves dinner to friends without homes every Thanksgiving.” 

What if we instead of saying, “I volunteer to help immigrants with their taxes,” we said, “I volunteer to help people who are new to this country fill out their tax forms.”

What if instead of saying “I work at an after school program for underprivileged  kids,” we said, “I work at an after school program for kids who have limited resources.”  

In the organization where I work we talk a lot about using person first language. Not a poor boy or poor community, but a little boy living in poverty or a community with limited economic resources. This is not to say that real poverty doesn’t exist, the poverty is often very real. But so is the person. And choosing to acknowledge a person gives them dignity, respect and love. Things that all people want, especially people who are living in poverty.

Somehow I have the feeling God does the same us. He sees us first as people, as his children. He doesn’t define us by whatever emotional, spiritual, or physical poverty we carry around in our lives. He defines us first as people. And we should do the same with others.

Let’s start using person first language.

Click back here to see Question #2 tomorrow and the rest of the 31 Questions Worth Asking for Cross-Cultural Workers.

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