Using People First Language

People-first language (PFL) also called person-first language is the use of language which puts the person before the diagnosis.

People-first language describes what a person has rather than what a person is. It allows us to treat people as humans first and allows us to avoid marginalization or dehumanization when talking about people with a chronic illness or disability.

Origins of people-first language

The term people-first language first appeared in 1988 recommended by advocacy groups here in the United States. It is believed that people-first language originated in the mental health community, its origin days back to AIDS activism, appearing in the Denver Principles (1983).

The language of the Denver Principles stated, “We condemn attempts to label us as ‘victims’, a term which implies defeat, and we are only occasionally ‘patients’, a term which implies passivity, helplessness, and dependence upon the care of others. We are ‘people with AIDS.’”1

The Denver Principles as foundation

The Denver Principles were the foundation for self-empowerment and self-determination for people living with HIV/AIDS. In 1983, when the principles were written, HIV was a death sentence that was too often used as an excuse to deny housing, healthcare, even funeral services. It took great courage to stand-up and speak-out and many of the gains we have made in the epidemic are due in large part to these community leaders.

Examples of people-first language

The language we use and the media messages we create often communicate stereotypical concepts and ideas about people or groups of people.

We are all guilty of using something we have heard and repeating that very language, which is heard from the media, from providers, and from other people. This results in those stereotypical concepts and ideas spreading deeper into our communities. The more these stigmatizing messages are used, the more we alienate people affected by the message become.

Undoing stigmatizing language and stereotypical concepts

We can correct people when they use stigmatizing language by saying “person living with HIV” instead of saying “HIV infected person.” Instead of saying, “died of AIDS,” say, “died of AIDS-related complications.” I often hear people that are still using incorrect terms like “full-blown AIDS”, when there is no medical definition for this phrase – simply use the term AIDS or stage 3 HIV.

Ending HIV stigma

Since the early days of the HIV epidemic, people living with HIV have seen and heard stigmatizing messages. The use of people-first language has since been applied to additional communities including mental health, disability, and others. Rather than use labels to define individuals with a health issue, it is more appropriate to use terminology that describes people as being diagnosed with an illness or condition.2

As we all begin to use people-first language, we will help to eliminate stigma surrounding living with HIV. Using people-first language combats the value-judgments that people often have about the person when we describe people by a label or their medical diagnoses. When we devalue and disrespect people, it can have a negative impact on their health outcomes. As we, the community of people living with HIV, use people-first language, we can support each other’s healing and combat the negative stereotypes which people often hold about us.

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