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Person First Language

Language Guide: Promoting Dignity for Those Impacted by FASD

A resource created to promote dignity and inclusion

The Importance of Using Person-First Language when Discussing Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders

When talking to or about people affected with FASD, or for that matter, any other medical or neurobehavioural condition, it is important to use respectful “person-first” language at all times. Using person-first language means that people should never use the acronym FASD as an adjective to describe another human being or themselves.

An example of person-first language is:

Jeremy is a young boy with FASD.

Marla is an individual (or girl, woman, adult) affected with FASD.

Brookview PS has a program for students with FASD.

I have a permanent, physical disability called FASD.

The four examples above do not define the person by their disability and allow us to see that there is more to the person than the disability. This then allows us to look for the abilities that all people with FASD have; abilities which are the key for them to have a connected and contributing adolescence and adulthood as opposed to becoming marginalized people in our society. 

We should never define a person with their disability and say things like:

Paul is a FASD child

My FASD boy/kid is having trouble at school.

I work with FASD children.

Even worse is something we sometimes hear from frustrated, over-tired parents and professionals:

These FASSY kids are really hard to keep on track and motivated.

The latter four examples, immediately above, tell everybody who is listening including the person with FASD that there isn’t much hope for them because the most important thing about them is that they have FASD. People who hear this all the time tend to think that they ARE a problem and there is no solution, as opposed to HAVING a problem which can be supported.  

If you catch yourself using the negative examples above be assured that you are not alone. It is shorter and easier to say and write these phrases compared to “person-first” language. You also need to know that it takes a while to train yourself to use the correct phrasing. Remember you would never refer to “a cancer or diabetes person.” It takes practise to unlearn the negative phrasing but it is possible.

There are two other examples of common, destructive phrasing around FASD (and other disabilities) which involve the words, “afflicted with” and “victim of.” For example, my child Billy is afflicted with FASD or my granddaughter Jenny is a victim of FASD. This tells Billy and Jenny many things none of which help them to be strong.

Building self-esteem and a capacity to ask for help when needed is consistent with respectful person-first language. These are the bases of the permanent interdependence that most people with FASD will need in a small or larger part for the rest of their lives. 

Contributed by Mary K.Cunningham B.Ed. P.H.Ec. FASD Consultant, Kitchener, Ontario.

Developmental Resource Centre Waterloo RegionSunbeam Centre