By: Aly Diana

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Language shapes our beliefs and may influence our behaviors. Language matters. It impacts how we think about ourselves, as individuals within our families and within society. Language is a powerful tool; while some words may make a person feel uplifted or supported, others may make them feel disrespected, stigmatized, or harmed. We should use it as a tool to effect positive change. People living with or at risk of HIV or other diseases/disabilities might experience stigma and discrimination, and the wrong language perpetuates this. When we use person-centered language, we acknowledge ourselves and others as fellow human beings.

Person-centered language rightfully places individuals ahead of their conditions or disabilities. It recognizes that people are far more than their substance use disorders, mental health challenges, or physical limitations. This approach to language is about honoring the dignity, worth, and unique attributes of each person. The terms we use are intrinsically linked to a person’s identity and self-perception, making it crucial to prioritize the individual rather than the condition. Emphasizing person-first language shifts our focus towards each person’s unique journey of recovery and their individual strengths, encouraging a deeper connection that transcends their health status.

There is growing concern about person-centered language or putting people first. When we submit an abstract for a conference or a paper in a journal, some require the usage of person-centered language; they also provide guidelines on words that may or may not be used. In practice and health facilities, the same encouragement is applied, whether we realize it or not. As educators, we also need to impart this concern to our students.

It feels somewhat abstract and arbitrary when we think about substituting one word for another, for example: replacing ‘HIV patient’ or ‘HIV-infected patient’ with ‘people living with HIV’, or ‘diabetic’ with ‘people living with diabetes’. This change has a deeper meaning and may either cause or prevent stigma or discrimination, impacting perception. I think a better approach is to use an example. Consider two descriptions:

  • Jane Doe is labeled as a diabetic, struggles with her sugar levels due to a love for sweets, and faces criticism for her eating habits and non-compliance with insulin therapy.
  • Jane Dear is described as a person living with diabetes who encounters challenges in managing her blood sugar levels, partly due to a fondness for sweets. She actively seeks strategies to better manage her condition and adhere to her treatment plan.

The question arises: With whom do you empathize more, Jane Doe or Jane Dear? As a patient, how would you prefer to be described?

Therefore, when a practitioner, researcher, educator, or individual uses deficit-based language filtered through a diagnostic label, they may become negatively biased and depersonalize the individual they are working with or talking about. We sometimes use casual labels when describing individuals, such as ‘junkie’ for an individual with a history of substance use or ‘cutter’ for an individual who engages in self-harm. Typically, when we use certain words, we are not trying to make anyone feel bad. But, if we keep using this kind of language, it can become a normal part of how everyone talks. This means that even without meaning to, the way we talk can start to make people feel less respected or valued. It’s important for us to think carefully about the words we choose, so we can maintain a respectful and caring environment. Narrow and negative labels are stigmatizing and can result in discriminatory and ineffective care.

Hopefully, this brief explanation may shed some light on why person-centered language is important. Initially, the shift may seem like mere compliance with guidelines. However, understanding the profound impact of our word choices can transform this action into a meaningful contribution toward creating a more hopeful and respectful world.


Crocker AF, Smith SN, 2019. Person-first language: are we practicing what we preach? J Multidiscip Healthc; 12:125-129.
Dilmitis S, Edwards O, Hull B, Margolese S, Mason N, Namiba A, Nyambe M, Paxton S, Petretti S, Ross GV, Welbourn A, Zakowics A, 2012. Language, identity and HIV: why do we keep talking about the responsible and responsive use of language? Language matters. J Int AIDS Soc;15(Suppl 2).
Hyams K, Prater N, Rohovit J, Meyer-Kalos Ps, 2018. Per-son-centered language. Clinical Tip No. 8: Center for Practice Transformation, University of Minnesota.
Kasadha B, 2022. What’s in a name: using person-centered language in HIV research.
UNAIDS, 2015. UNAIDS Terminology Guidelines.

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