October 5, 2021
My wife is a special education facilitator, and she was the first to tell me about the “people-first” language that should be used in her profession. For example, instead of saying “he is autistic,” we instead should say, “he is a person with autism.” To many, this may seem like semantics or a policing of speech, but it was a big deal to me when I learned it. Because the labels we put on one another defines our relationship with them, and I have had fun using people's first language in as many encounters as I can just to see how it affects my attitude toward them. The result has been remarkable.
Instead of sitting at a restaurant and being served by my waiter, I am served by a person who is my waiter. All of a sudden, just by changing the way I name someone, it changes the way I treat them. They are no longer just doing a job, but they are a person. A person with hopes, dreams, and relationships. The things that are weighing me down in life are probably also weighing her down. She has a family, a social life, stresses at work. When I think in people first terms, I find myself to be more understanding, compassionate, and more patient with people.
We should be mindful of our own labels, and how we label others. Because we all label people. Some do it more aggressively and violently than others, but we label people. Racial slurs are labels defining a person, as Martin Luther King said, “on the color of their skin rather than the content of their character.” When we do not put people first and instead result to labels, even in our language, we are degrading them.
It should be noted that many times someone in the Bible has a profound encounter with God, their name changes, which shows just how important it is what we call people. Abram changes to Abraham, Jacob becomes Israel after wrestling with the Lord, Simon becomes Peter because Jesus is going to build his church upon him. What we call people is extremely important, and if we only call someone by their label rather than who they are even at their most basic level, we are blinding ourselves to the relationship we could potentially have.
I hope that we can all practice putting people first in our language and in our lives. It was transformational to me when I began to meet people who had autism, were of a different background, held different jobs, and lived different lives. I did not meet an autistic, a banker, a poor person, I met a fellow child of God. I think if we all put this practice into place, even though it is a small change, bit by bit, we will live in a kinder world.