Language is a powerful and consequential tool.
The words we use to shape our messages impact the way people perceive what we’re trying to convey. Our words can create positive messages—or cause harm, especially when talking about people who are “different.” We may not realize that comments can be demeaning when, in most instances, they weren’t meant to be. Yet the intent has no bearing on the person who was hurt by it.
People-first terminology focuses on using language reflecting that we are people first. Rather than talking about “the hungry,” let me suggest that we say “people who are hungry.” By using phrases such as“the uninsured” or “the disabled,” perhaps we’re using words to distance ourselves from something we don’t understand. Or maybe we use these words because we refer to someone different than ourselves in terms of race or sexual orientation or something we haven’t experienced, such as a lack of food or a disability.
When I was growing up, my mom was disabled. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and eventually losing her mobility, she would often call on us to reposition her legs, asking, in a way that made us laugh, to “move the leg” to make her more comfortable.
Years later, it struck me. Maybe saying “the leg” instead of “my leg” disassociated her from the legs affected by the debilitating disease. Perhaps seeing her legs as inanimate objects helped to separate her from what was happening to her beautiful body. Comparatively, perhaps when we say “the hungry” or “the disabled” we too distance ourselves from what we don’t understand.
Differences allow us to be the individuals we genuinely are, and sometimes acknowledging that is good. However, intentionally or not, we often highlight a difference when it doesn’t matter. Language is a tool that can either create connections or separate us from each other. It can be affirming or disparaging. When it comes to describing people who may be marginalized, the words we choose definitely matter.
At this seminal moment in our society, let’s speak thoughtfully and respectfully. Let’s take the time to recognize the power of our words and how using them is tied into our collective work of building a new culture of diversity, equality, and inclusion. We all bear the responsibility of using our words to build bridges of connection, not burn them down.
We can start by remembering to always refer to the person first before naming race, disability, sexual orientation, need for food support, or another descriptor. Use people-first terminology as a tool of respect and dignity. As taught by my mother, a person who struggled most of her life, “Be kind, for everyone you know is fighting a hard battle.”
Randi Shubin Dresner is the president and CEO of Island Harvest Food Bank.