Why Person-First Language Matters When Discussing Down Syndrome

Yesterday, I saw an article in a local newspaper that used the words “Down Toddler” in the headline. The article itself was good, but I was very disappointed with the title. Down toddler? Seriously?

Years ago I learned that in English, you should reduce unnecessary prepositional phrases in writing. Too many prepositional phrases can over-complicate a sentence and obscure the main subject. I’m not sure why I remember this rule so vividly, but it has stuck with me all these years.

I point it out because this particular grammatical rule may have played a role in the writer’s word choice. Of course, this is all speculation, but “Down toddler” may have seemed more to the point than “toddler with Down syndrome.” It certainly kept the title short.

What the author failed to realize was how she labeled the child by placing the word “Down” in front of toddler. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again — words matter! First and foremost, the little girl in the article is a person. There are many more words that could be used to describe her. Down syndrome is just one attribute; it’s not her whole being.

I have a son with Down syndrome. He also has a congenital heart defect and Hirschsprung’s disease, but none of these define him. He is not my Hirschsprung’s baby.  He is not my congenital heart disease baby. Do you hear how silly that sounds? He is also not my Down baby, or Down’s baby, or Down syndrome baby. He is just my baby. Period.  He has blue eyes, brown hair, chubby little legs, the cutest button nose, and Down syndrome. I love that Down syndrome is part of who he is. It’s just not all of who he is.

The same goes for my daughter. My daughter is not my ADHD daughter. She is just my daughter. She also happens to have ADHD. Again, words matter. It’s not OK to equate a person with a medical diagnosis.

People-first language puts the person before the diagnosis, and it can change the way we see a person. The diagnosis is no longer primary — it can take a back seat. Person-first language is empowering. Start using it today!

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