People First Language In Grant Writing

If one was to ask my daughter to describe her best friend, here is what she would say. She loves to be pushed on the swing. She’s good at painting. She gives really great hugs. What she wouldn’t say is that her best friend is “special needs.” She would say, however, that she is her most special friend in the whole wide world.


The US Developmental Disabilities Bill of Rights Act (1975) states, in part, that “Disability is part of the natural human experience”. When writing for a new DH Leonard Consulting client, one of the first questions I always ask is, “Is there any language or wording you would prefer I use or avoid?” By far, most organizations choose to use People First Language in describing the people they serve. Since the introduction of the disability rights movement in the 1970s, the idea of People First Language began to evolve. People First (or Person First) Language is based upon the simple premise that a person is not defined by their diagnosis and labeling them as such diminishes their individualism and promotes the idea of “otherness”.


So, how does one logically apply this concept to their grant writing? It’s relatively simple-literally describe the population as people first, then address their diagnoses. They aren’t “Developmentally disabled people” but “People who have a developmental disability.” This small but sizable shift in language has powerful significance. It removes harmful labels that has led to the segregation, minimization, and degradation of people with mental and physical challenges throughout history.


Please note, however, that People First Language is not universal. In some communities, People First Language is actively rejected. The Autistic Self Advocacy Network emphasizes Identity First Language. Blogger Lydia Brown states, “Referring to me as ‘a person with autism’ or ‘an individual with ASD’ demeans who I am because it denies who I am.” In 1993, The National Federation of the Blind adopted a resolution condemning People First Language. In Deaf culture, People First Language is rejected because Deafness is a source of identity and pride.


As grant writers, our goal is to raise money to support programs that educate and empower people. We have the privilege of providing the voice of an organization to funders, and, as such, we must always remain mindful of how we present the people being served. We must remember there are no hard and fast rules on how we should address people and their medical diagnoses, mental state, or physical conditions. The only rule is we must be deferential to how they choose to be viewed by their community. Without this most basic level of respect, we can never fully advocate for their community, their needs, and their future.

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