Why Person-First Language Matters

A recent medical conference on obesity in Dublin, Ireland, reinforces the importance of using person-first language when referring to people living with an illness or disability.

Author: Michelle Russell       

convention centre lit up in multiple colors at night

The 30th European Congress on Obesity, which took place at The Convention Centre Dublin, committed to using person-first language.

When a reporter referred to “obese teens” in a press briefing at the 30th European Congress on Obesity, which has just met at The Convention Centre Dublin, May 17-20, Aaron Kelly, Ph.D., was quick to correct. “We no longer use obese as an adjective,” Kelly said, as reported by Bloomberg Business writer Naomi Kresge, who was covering the congress in Dublin, Ireland. “It’s adolescents with obesity,” said Kelly, who serves as co-director of the Center for Pediatric Obesity Medicine at the University of Minnesota. The stigma society attaches to obesity, he said, means that it’s important to use “person-first” language.

man with glasses and graying hair and beard

Aaron S. Kelly

It may seem like a small thing, but not characterizing or labeling people by their illness or disability is an important step in being more inclusive and is key to demonstrating respect for the individual. We included the importance of using person-first language in our recent list of tips about making your social-media messages more inclusive.

On its European Congress on Obesity website, the European Association for the Study of Obesity (EASO) says it requires use of person-first language and non-stigmatizing images in all written and verbal communications: “The use of person-first language is the standard for respectfully addressing individuals living with chronic diseases; we don’t label people because of their illness.”

EASO has published a person-first language guide specific to obesity — for example, instead of saying “morbidly obese patient,” you would say “patient with severe obesity or patient living with severe obesity” — that can be used as a template for referring to people living with other disabilities, illnesses, or having special needs.

As Kresge reports in her story, Kelly presented data at the congress that showed promising results of a weight-loss drug among teens with obesity. “But a different study presented at the conference,” she writes, “showed how the psychological reaction to the stigma of obesity,” even after significant weight loss, “may linger on.”

Past obesity is associated with a higher risk of experiencing depression and sleep problems, shared a researcher in the department of psychology at the University of Liverpool. He and his team analyzed data from two large U.S. surveys, which found the mental-health effects of obesity persisted even in those whose weight had dropped below the threshold for obesity.

The Liverpool data is preliminary and hasn’t been published or peer-reviewed, Kresge said.

But the fact that it was presented at a conference and reported by a major news outlet underscores the power of events to spark important conversations that have a ripple effect on society.

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.

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