What is Person-Centered Language?


Think of a time when you typed up an email or posted a comment on Facebook really fast. Before you hit send, you looked it over and thought “wow, that’s now how I wanted that to come across.”  You then found yourself going back and typing it all over again to send your message in the way it was intended. While the intentions in your remarks probably weren’t negative, the words that you used set the wrong tone for what you were trying to say.  Thinking about what you’re saying and how you’re saying are huge components of person-centered language.

When we talk about people who have one specific characteristic in common, we have a natural tendency to unintentionally “label” them. When you describe someone using a label, you lose the chance to see their individual identity. You paint a broad stroke over those unique and wonderful characteristics that make them who they are. On the other hand, when you use person-centered language your words empower someone instead of allowing them to fall under one of these accidental labels.

Sometimes, these labels can be reminders of a negative stereotype. What if you heard that the person writing this article has blonde hair? Immediately, your mind may go to different stereotypes that you’ve heard of about people with blonde hair. Based on only one single characteristic, you already have in your head an idea of what this person might be like based of those stereotypes.

So imagine not being able to use words to speak. Some may call you “non-verbal”. Should that define you?  Does that mean that you don’t communicate at all? Do you still have thoughts, ideas and dreams? What if everywhere you went, the first thing people said about you was that you were non-verbal?

Now let’s get more personal: think of the thing you are most self-conscious about.  Is it your cowlick that troubles you every morning? Is it the crooked tooth, or perhaps the few extra pounds that you can’t seem to lose? What if everyone that you came in contact with referred to you as that trait? What if everyone overlooked all of your great qualities in favor of one single characteristic?

Language that is specific and natural is something that our culture should embrace in order to treat all people with dignity and respect. Instead of referring to someone as what they cannot do, let’s promote their great qualities. Describe what they’re capable of, and use a term that really describes who they are, like “caring,” or “funny.”  Instead of pointing out the way that they don’t communicate, let’s introduce to others the ways they can communicate.  Instead of referring to people as “clients” or “residents,” let’s refer to them by their first name, or “someone I support.”

It’s time to go back to our hypothetical email and reread it before we send it. We have to rethink the language we use when we talk about people. The words we use are a powerful force that can help or hurt, so let’s choose the ones that help.

Instead of…





Using their first name

Person I support

People We support

Outing Specify where, ex: “a trip to the mall”
Toileting Assisting someone in the bathroom
Low Functioning Struggles with ________

In need of extra support with _______

High Functioning In need of some supports with______

Capable of__________

Feeding Helping/ supporting someone with dinner

Sharing a meal

Non-Verbal Doesn’t use words to communicate

Uses ________to communicate

Refusal Doesn’t want to do something
My Guys

The Guys

The people we support
Wheelchair bound A person who uses a wheelchair
Disabled A person with a disability
Handicapped Accessible
Having a Behavior Upset, angry, happy, etc…

Think before you speak. The words that we use are powerful. Use language that promotes dignity and respect by avoiding labels, being specific, and always putting the person first.

man with blonde hair and blue shirt

Written by Brian Potvin
Personal Outcome Measures Interviewer, The Arc of Monroe

Brian conducts Personal Outcome Measure (POMs) interviews with people supported by The Arc of Monroe. Through this, he learns what is going well for them, how well we are supporting them as an agency, and where we could do better. He is a fierce supporter of self-advocacy and in empowering people to be the best they can be. He facilitates the self-advocacy group, supporting members to run the group themselves. He has a great eye for finding opportunities where people can grow in independence and explore new experiences, and he is creative and persistent in finding ways to make things happen.