Person-Centered Language and Appearances in Caregiving

Caregivers can best serve people when they focus on individuality and personhood. In action, we do this by remaining attentive to people and the contexts of their lives. And in words, we do this by focusing on person-centered language. Person-centered language is the practice of emphasizing personhood over any of attributes. So, a person a caregiver serves might be referred to as a person with disabilities instead of a disabled person (if the disability is relevant to the discussion at all).

This approach best respects the dignity of those served, but sometimes appearances get in the way. This is especially true of people with disabilities, because they often engage in behaviors that are misunderstood. So we must be attentive to the language we use and our own perceptions of those we serve, as well as perceptions of others, in order to make sure we continuously keep the dignity of those served in mind.

Let’s talk more about how appearances relate to this. We all judge and are judged by appearances. Sometimes these judgments are justified. Let’s say your car breaks down and you are alone. You spot a man down the road and cannot see his face. He walks closer. His approach puts you on edge. This scary looking stranger in a scary looking place may not be the first person you want to approach for help getting your car running. Of course this stranger could be the nicest and most helpful person you would ever encounter, but the risk of asking him for help, perceived through intuition, outweighs the benefits (at least until there seems to be no better option). From this example, it can be supposed that a function, if not the sole or primary function of intuition, is to enable us to gain and judge information quickly, and allow for fast decision making; decision making that is necessary for our survival.

But judging by appearances can also lead to problems. A well-dressed and handsome man, when his behavior is keenly observed over time, may be rightly judged as unscrupulous. But at first blush, he may strike us as charming and trustworthy. And the woman in the grocery store who turns heads by yelling at the malfunctioning self-scanner may be a loving mother who just lost her father, received her own dire diagnosis, had her car break down, and was laid off a month ago. Her outburst in the present occurs in a context that requires deep understanding of the greater context of her life and its events. But the other shoppers may quickly dismiss her as, by nature, unhinged.

Lack of contextual understanding creates problems, miseries and dangers. And these day to day maladies can compound and descend into tragedy. They are often avoidable through a deeper understanding of ourselves, others and the world. So we must be attentive to the fact that people are people, and like ourselves are dynamic and have their own histories, assumptions about the world and envisioned future they propel themselves toward.

It cannot be understated how important this is to keep in mind when working with people with disabilities. Often times people with disabilities are viewed first as a disability or set of unconventional behaviors, and only later as a human being. And oftentimes people with disabilities are lumped together with other people with the same or similar attributes, behaviors or diagnosis, at the expense of fully recognizing their personhood and individuality. This is why there is an insistence on using the phrase person with a disability over disabled person. The first phrase puts the person first.

As caregivers we have a duty to practice person-first language practices not only because we work intimately with people with disabilities, but because we are usually among their closest and most trusted advocates. And we help to bridge the gap between those with whom we work and others in our community, who may reflect less on the individuality of others (not out of malice, but out of wired intuition). It is also for these reasons we must be aware of our own perceptions of those with whom we work, so that we are not lost on appearances or unconventional behavior. We must lead, and lead by example.

PS. If you have time, check out this other great article on person-centered language.

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