What is person-first language, and why do we use it at Covey?

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May 27, 2022

By Sam Buisman – Covenant House Alaska Staff Writer

Eagle-eyed readers of our blog and social media pages may have noticed that we use the phrase “youth experiencing homelessness” rather than “homeless youth” — what’s up with that?

When reading or hearing “youth experiencing homelessness,” it sounds clunky and awkward compared to the sleeker “homeless youth.” It costs more space on a page and doubles the characters in a Tweet. So why do we insist on using this phrase? 

Person-first language.

At Covenant House Alaska, we make the deliberate choice to use “person-first language” when discussing the youth we serve, be it in person or our communications. This style of language avoids assigning labels to people to describe them, instead choosing to prioritize the person first and present details about them as a trait of that person. 

For example, in the phrase “youth experiencing homelessness,” the word “youth” leads, and their experience of homelessness comes across to the reader as a part of that youth’s larger identity. Other person-first phrases we often use at Covey include “youth experiencing trafficking” and “youth with disabilities.” 

Advocates have long maintained that person-first language humanizes the individual or group it describes by presenting details about them as a part of their larger identity. Labels, on the other hand, can subconsciously boil a person down to only what that label describes. 

In fact, research now shows that using person-first language can encourage more tolerant attitudes towards the people it describes compared to when simple labels are used. 

It’s a small change, but it goes a long way in emphasizing the autonomy and resilience of the young people we are privileged to serve at Covenant House Alaska. 

History of person-first language.

While it seems new-fangled, the use of person-first language has been around for nearly half a century in the US. 

The use of person-first language in the US was pioneered in the early 1970s by disability activists seeking to move away from label-centric language to prevent one’s disability from dominating their identity.

Their grassroots efforts snowballed into a 1974 conference in Salem, Oregon, that aimed to organize these activists into a cohesive movement. It was at this conference that attendees coined the phrase “people first” and launched a larger campaign to advocate for such language under this banner. 

At around the same time, Black activist groups also began introducing person-first phrases into their language. Historians point to 1977 as the earliest use of person-first phrases like “women of color.”  

While these phrases were intended to emphasize Black solidarity rather than personal autonomy at the time of their usage and were supplanted by terms like “African American” in the late 20th century, the Black community’s use of person-first phrases nonetheless helped popularize this language among activist groups. 

Around the turn of the millennium, people-first language began to spread beyond its original circles into the parlance of other activist groups that advocate for oft-stereotyped groups, including gender and ethnic minorities.

With the 21st-century surge of person-first language, such phrasing has re-entered the lexicon of Black activists via terms like “person of color” or “BIPOC.”

Academia has also embraced person-first language, with most academic journals now requiring their contributors to use this phrasing.

Now, person-first language has spread beyond its original activist spaces and into mainstream speaking and writing practices, including ours at Covenant House Alaska and across the network of organizations that provide services to the unhoused.

Why does this language matter?

Moving away from simple labels and using person-first language is a small but important way to encourage empathy between people with different backgrounds. This makes it an essential tool as we work in the field of youth homelessness. 

The human urge to label others doesn’t necessarily come from a place of malice. Psychologists see it as our brain’s attempt to simplify the complex world around us into something easier for us to understand. 

Yet, this can have the unintended consequences of defining people based on, and thus emphasizing, their differences

Categorical labels like “the homeless” or “homeless people” implies that people experiencing homelessness are fundamentally different from people who are housed — a separate class of people who will permanently be without shelter. This puts distance between these two groups and can discourage people from taking action on this issue.

While this may sound extreme, studies on person-first language demonstrate this link. 

In a 2016 study, researchers gave two groups of participants an exam measuring their tolerance of people with mental illnesses. One group received an exam written with people-first phrasing (“people with mental illnesses”) while the other received an exam with categorical phrasing (“the mentally ill”). 

The participants who received the people-first exam exhibited significantly more tolerable attitudes than those with the categorical exam towards people with mental illnesses. These findings were consistent when these exams were given to young adults, older adults and even professional disability counselors. 

Person-first language at Covenant House Alaska.

With its advocacy-steeped history and lab-proven effects, we at Covenant House Alaska strive to use this language to affirm the personhood of our youth, encourage their acceptance in our community, and inspire activism within our readers. 

Our principle of unconditional love compels us to do everything we can to serve those in our care with the dignity they deserve, even if it is something as small as being a little more careful in how we talk. 

If it uplifts our youth, we will do it  — even if it means it’s more difficult to Tweet. 

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