One of the first times I rode the shuttle bus from my apartment complex to my college campus, I noticed a sign on the windows by the front seats: “Priority seating for the elderly and people with disabilities.” As an aspiring editor, I couldn’t avoid editing the sign in my mind. “Persons” just doesn’t sound right. Why not “people”? No, wait, you could replace that whole phrase with “disabled” to make it more concise. “Priority seating for the elderly and disabled.”
Months later, I read a section about avoiding bias in a writing handbook. It said not to refer to people as their race, disability status, and so on. I thought, Duh, you’re not supposed to call someone “retard.” One of the examples given, however, was to write “people with disabilities” instead of “the disabled.” The wording of the first phrase emphasizes the people instead of the disabilities. It doesn’t make disabilities the defining feature of their identities; no, they are people who happen to have these challenges.
Now I understood why the sign on the bus had been written that seemingly wordy way. I was ashamed of my rendition of the sign. I’ve advocated person-first language ever since.
Darla Nagel is an editor and writing tutor who has an invisible chronic illness. She wants to help other patients and enlighten health care professionals about our experiences. If you’d like to be alerted whenever she writes a new post, sign up by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
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