People First Language for Us and Them

As an educator, one of the most important things that I taught to others and other people taught me was the value of People First Language. For those people who aren’t aware of this grammatical arrangement, today, it would be “the man with hyperhidrosis had to turn up the air conditioning so he didn’t sweat profusely” instead of “the excessively sweaty dude is freezing people out with his air conditioner.”

While expressed in a “light-hearted” manner, putting man before condition in the first option is appropriate. Additionally, the condition is important here since it gives a reason for the action as something more than just doing it because he feels like it. The second option doesn’t list a condition, but it does list a symptom before the person. This removes the humanity and creates a sub-human. Last but not least, it’s pretty derogatory.

The effect of tone

“There must be a reason that guy is turning the air conditioning up. I don’t think he wants to be rude, but it’s freezing me out.”

“The air conditioning is making me cold. Can you turn it down, please?”

“That guy seems to be sweating a lot. Is he OK?”

By providing your email address, you are agreeing to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.

These can be worked with. However, some things can’t.

“Look (jerk), if you don’t get off your stinky, sweat butt and turn this AC down, I’ll be talking to your boss, and you’ll be looking for a new job.”

The condition that is hyperhidrosis

Sure, this sweaty Parkinson’s condition does lead to all the “unpretty” things that go with high temperatures. Would I expect a person to know this? Probably not. Would I want to be labeled the stinky kid? Definitely not. Would I expect a bottle of raspberry iced tea from a stranger to keep my engine from running the red? Ideally, but in reality, no.

That brings us back to People First Language. This is something different than just being politically correct about where a word is placed in a sentence. Besides, I measure your words and questions more in tone.

“Is something wrong with your left leg? It seems to be dragging?”

“Uncle Dan, why does your handshake?”


“Dude, if you bump into me one more time, I’m going to…”

“Uncle Dan sure is gimpy.”

We can educate people from their faux pas. Nevertheless, when given the choice of being the bigger person or letting people have it, there’s only one choice.

A polite request

I want you to see me as more than just Parkinson’s, but I also need to express my Parkinson’s.

“I know that it’s cold in here, but I’m burning up because of my Parkinson’s. Perhaps, I can just move the fan around a little.”

However, this is also a request to me to not mention my Parkinson’s until I need to, and also, it means I don’t mention it when it doesn’t need to be.

“Hi! My name is Dan. I like to write, hike, and learn about my Parkinson’s, which I’m about to speak endlessly about.”

Keeping the person and the Parkinson's in balance

“You’re not Parkinson’s; you’re Dan,” my wife says with Confucian wisdom.

“Say what’s needed; no more, no less,” an audience says when we go TMI.

Here, the answer is to live our lives fully and happily. Whether we’re Jimmy Choi kicking butt on the American Ninja obstacle course or just smiling at our young relatives enjoying life, we’re choosing to lead a People First Life.

Failing at this is a far worse punishment than some Internet troll’s passing slanders. It’s much worse than someone asking if we need help with a door.

Sometimes, it’s like we choose to be disabled instead of to have a disability. Going from one to the other is more than a change in words. I think about that as I begin work with the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation and my doctor regarding “the future.”

I also thought about that as I was given a special handicapped placard when I was in Yosemite. Sure, I hike with a limp, but I can walk. Now, I had access to special parking spots. Does this mean I'm at a new level? Does Parkinson's have me (like the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers)? As a person who found his health condition at the mid-life mark, I now face this confrontation.

Let’s just say the access pass wasn’t the bonanza of front row parking that some people might think it is. Instead, I had a mental hurdle to cross. The placard might as well have said, “You’re less Dan now. Ready for the confidence shake?”

As my wife and I walked through the lot, I wondered if people were looking for a visual disability. After all, most of mine are invisible, save the tremors and the rigidity. I thought about how people judge active people with disabilities they can’t see.

Then I thought about a future where I couldn’t hike back to waterfalls.

And you know what? I realized I needed a refresher course in my own People First Thoughts.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

Join the conversation

Please read our rules before commenting.