What is People First Language? In a nutshell, People First Language places the person before the “disability”. PFL is a manner of communication which describes conditions an individual might happen to be experiencing as secondary to their essential being or who they are.
Given that language is a powerful tool which often shapes our perceptions with respect to social interaction, this is not a trivial distinction and is helpful in illuminating the unique, dynamic, and complex nature of any given individual vs. simply “pigeon holing” people into restrictive and narrowly defined categories which neglect to reflect the entirety of one’s being.
Maybe it might help to reflect upon that which defines the essential nature of “what it is to be you”? How do you define who you are? Do you believe it is accurate to define your existence by a single characteristic or attribute? How about several? Taken from the other extreme, can there ever be enough attributes to capture any given person’s essence?
Perhaps such philosophical questions are not conducive to navigating through our daily lives in so far as interacting with others, so we often describe ourselves as: a parent, spouse, sibling, friend, professional, artist, musician, or maybe even as someone with a special need. When we label ourselves with a single word, it would seem there is a logical omission of an infinite number of other possibilities which might be just as “accurate”, yet it would be cumbersome to relay such a dense array of information to others and still expect to carry on a conversation in a short period of time.
So, how do we practically communicate what might be pertinent information about ourselves in a manner which does not subvert the notion that we as human beings are multi-dimensional and not defined by the narrow scope which language often boxes us into?
People First Language hinges upon an imperative that an individual is a person first – who may possess various qualities and conditions as secondary characteristics. Using language in such a way mitigates compartmentalizing people into “typecasts” as being the central defining characteristic of their being.
In the case of individuals who may happen to have special needs, this can be an extremely important distinction in so far as parsing out such needs as secondary attributes vs. the primary focal point of a person’s identity.
In regard to language used on the VerySpecialCamps.com website: we allow camp directors very wide latitude in describing the particular nature of their camp and program offerings, and almost never intervene in so far as editing content which appears on individual camp listing pages. We generally assume there to be a sufficient level of awareness by camp directors with respect to People First Language. In addition to individual camp listings on this website, we maintain a core set of information and search pages … structured to allow visitors seeking camps and camp jobs to effectively locate a suitable camp of interest. Now here’s where there might be a “point of contention”: while we would like to promote the use of People First Language and have attempted to craft verbiage accordingly, we have realized that not everyone out there searching for camps on the internet is aware of or utilizes People First Language in so far as the search terms they employ to find a camp. Consequently, we’ve found ourselves in the position of opting to still utilize terminology which isn’t necessarily in accordance with principles of People First Language … simply as a practical means of accessibility in the search engines as well as being able to assist people in at least making an initial connection with camps which serve individuals with special needs.
Hopefully, once such a visitor has established a relationship with a camp director, one will be welcomed and introduced to People First Language and adopt its manner of communication. So, we realize there’s a bit of a compromise we’re clearly making, but our hope is that by “straddling both worlds of language” we’ll help the greater community and society as a whole to evolve in so far as embracing People First Language – not necessarily just with respect to individuals with special needs.
To this end, we invite you to share your perspective and provide us with feedback. Feel free to contact us!