The Power of Language

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A student recently sent me an article about person-first language. The article does a great job of exploring different perspectives on why some people prefer to use person-first language. In this case, the language of choice is “a person with autism” while others still feel more comfortable calling themselves, “an autistic person.” What I especially like about the article is that it ends by calling people to engage in meaningful conversation about the topic.


Here at the foundation, we support the use of person-first language and have a handy brochure available on the topic. We recognize that everyone has a choice in the words we use to describe ourselves, others and the world around us. These choices have a powerful effect on how we view mental health and people with mental health conditions. It’s important to respect people’s preferences for the words used to identify them and describe their life experiences.

I used to conduct a good deal of diversity education workshops, and the issue of language was central in talking about various cultural identities. Inevitably, people would say, “Isn’t it just being PC (politically correct) to use a particular term?” After responding to that type of question several times, I developed my own “counter-acronym.” I would say, “No, I think it’s being ‘CP…Culturally Perceptive.'” It’s understanding why some people want to be called one term and not another and having the courage and empathy to ask about the history behind their choice.

Often times in trainings, people would request “the list” of terms that they should stick to in order to stay out of trouble and not offend anyone. There is no such list. People feel differently about the way they self-label and still others dislike labels altogether. A great example is the word “queer.” Some lesbian and gay individuals see the word as a reclaimed politically-empowering term, while others still see it as a hurtful slur from a prior generation. I encourage people to ask about preferences and like this article suggests, to discuss the topic.

I was once in a meeting, where someone asked “What’s the difference between ‘Latino’ and ‘Hispanic’?” Another person responded, “It depends on which week you ask someone?” and then laughter broke out. I took a deep breath, and gave an explanation about the history of each term and why one may be preferred over the other. I hope we can all be respectful of why labels matter to individuals, can continue to educate each other, and engage in discussions on this topic that may lead to greater understanding.

2 thoughts on “The Power of Language

    Byron Webb, LMSW said:
    September 27, 2011 at 11:21 am

    If you’d like to read more on the power of language choics, how we use language to define ourselves, to make meaning out of the events of our lives, and how a simple word choice can change a person’s destiny, read any articles by Dr. Don Granvold (UTA) or Dr. Michael Mahoney (UNT, post-humous), authors and primary propnents of Contructivist perspectives.

    I’m not sure it has become a full-blow theory or treatment modality, but in my practice, we spend a lot of time identifying the effects of language in shaping thought, perception, and outcomes. My clients tend to struggle at first when challenged to examine their language choices, to intentionally make alternative choices, and track outcomes for those situations where they have enough history that they feel confident they can predict, within reason, any pattern-established outcomes in familiar interactions.

    I am pleased to report, although without quantitative data to support my elementary conclusions, but qualitatively, those clients who are willing to make a strong effort for a reasonable amount of time, report that outcomes do change toward the positive, that they have learned that new language allows them to set appropriate boundaries, talk about feelings, and is a tool they use in conjunction with other skills pro-actively to either avoid or resolve conflicts in ways in which they have before never been able.

    So, thank you for the article in support in the exploration of language choices as a means to increase effective communication and all that goes with that.

    Shaun said:
    January 12, 2012 at 2:08 pm

    It would be really great if you started listening to disabled people instead of plugging your fingers in your ears and continuing right as you were before we spoke out. All of the example words on the cover of your brochure are negative slurs; this completely misses the point of autism (and other disabilities) being an identity. It would be more accurate to produce a brochure with labels such as Catholic, Muslim, Woman, Man, African-American, Black, Korean, Irish, etc. All you’re doing is further stigmatizing disabilities.

    Quit it.

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