Attorneys need to know about people-first language

Jessica Markham

Jessica Markham

I recently attended a fantastic event hosted by the Washington DC Economic Partnership about fostering a disability-friendly workplace. The speakers were inspiring, and I learned a lot of useful information about how to support employees and clients with all kinds of disabilities, or at least how to reduce my chances of offending them. It is critical that attorneys, being the wordsmiths we are, use the correct and most respectful words in addressing our coworkers and clients.

I learned that D.C., unlike Maryland, passed the People-First Language Modernization Act, which requires the use of respectful language when referring to people with disabilities in all new and revised District laws, regulations, rules and publications. People-first language has been around since 1988 but is only now gaining in popularity. People-first language, or PFL, puts the person before the disability and describes what a person has and not what a person is. PFL uses phrases such as “person with a vision impairment” as opposed to “blind person.”

When addressing clients with a disability, it’s important to separate the person from the medical diagnosis and put the person first. Rather than referring to someone by his/her/their disability (a handicapped person or a disabled person), acknowledge the person first (a person with a disability).

If you find yourself uncertain about what words to use in an interaction with someone who has a disability, it is appropriate to ask, rather than make an assumption. Everyone is different and some people do prefer “identity-first” language.

In many instances, it’s best to focus on your client’s abilities. For example, rather than referring to a client as non-verbal, you may communicate the client’s need by saying that they communicate using their eyes/device/etc. A person is not “wheelchair bound” but rather “uses a wheelchair.”

If you would like to read further about people-first language, you can refer to the Maryland Department of Health Developmental Disabilities Administration here.

Jessica Markham is the owner of Markham Law Firm, a family law firm in Bethesda.

One comment

  1. Deirdre Anne Hendrick

    I think some of the suggestions above that the instructors offered are a little too impersonal, especially for a letter from an attorney who presumably knows many clerks by name. I would address the Clerk as “Dear Clerk Jones” or “Dear Clerk of Court, Andy Jones”. I am surprised there was no mention of attorneys addressing colleagues, though we can simply address each other as “Counselor” or “Dear Attorney Markham”, though I address attorneys (and most other people) by their first names unless professional cordiality has been thrown out the window by them.

    I don’t know many people who use “Mrs.” or “Miss” anymore. I generally get called “Ms.” and that’s fine *for me* (even though I’m non-binary); however, I generally dispense with titles altogether, except for Judges of course.