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'People-first' means respect at Perkins School for the Blind

A day after I went to the Watertown, Mass., campus of Perkins School for the Blind to interview Bill Oates, the former CIO at the City of Boston and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts who now heads the school’s business and technology division, Perkins Solutions, I got a phone call. It was Marilyn Rea Beyer, director of public relations for the school.

Before I wrote a profile on Oates and his new role at Perkins, she wanted to make sure of something. Did I use people-first language?

People-first? I didn’t know what she meant.

Person before condition

“People-first” language, explained Beyer, is a way of speaking and writing about people with disabilities that aims to emphasize the person and de-emphasize the condition the person has. Preferable to blind person is person who is blind.

It’s about showing respect, Beyer said, and it’s the official line of the school.

“Perkins, from a communications viewpoint, wants to model the most respectful language possible when talking about our students, graduates and the community at large and that would go for any person of any description,” she said.

As a journalist, I thought immediately about the linguistic twists and turns I might have to do when writing my article. The traditional English syntax of adjective-noun is simpler and shorter than noun-relative clause. But the reasoning behind people-first language made sense to me. It was accurate and more expansive than the usual shorthand: a short man, an overweight woman, illegal immigrants. (Plus, there’s a journalistic tradition embraced by many, including the Associated Press — whose guide on style and usage SearchCIO uses as a resource — that sources should be described the way they’d like to be.)

Oates follows the school’s policy on people-first language. In an hourlong conversation about his new role and the transition from being a CIO at state and city government to a business manager looking to technology to help his user population, he used the adjective-noun construction (blind person) just once.

No one is keeping tabs, Beyer said (though for the purposes of this article, I just did). What’s important is that people begin their references with people-first language.

And though the blind is not a term Perkins uses, the historical name of the school isn’t changing.

Conflicting views on people-first

Though people-first language is widely encouraged and used across the U.S by advocacy groups and government organizations like Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it has its detractors. Sociologist C. Edwin Vaughan says the use of people-first language is awkward and repetitious and “calls attention to a person as having some type of ‘marred identity.'”

The National Federation of the Blind adopted a resolution against people-first language in 1993, saying it amounts to politically correct euphemisms that are “unacceptable and pernicious.”

Strong words indeed, especially when considering the mission of an organization like Perkins: “to prepare children and young adults who are blind with the education, confidence and skills they need to realize their potential.” Certainly, it’s a mission advocates on either side of the debate would stand by.

Let us know what you think of this post; email Jason Sparapani, features writer, or find him on Twitter @jmsparapani.