I can’t believe I am writing this article. When I was in school a term “people =-first language” was introduced to me and many other students in my class. In the clinic there are not strokes, ankle sprains, or neck pain. There’s patients or people with strokes, people with ankle sprains, and people with neck pain. This is people first language. Insert eye roll. Professor after professor would refer to patients in non-people-first language all the time but we understood that it was a “do as I say, not as I do” situation.
Recently it hit me though. People-first language is brilliant beyond its intentions. It was initially introduced to avoid dehumanization of people with injuries or disabilities. However, I am taking it a step further. On average I see patients 2 times a week for an hour, and I have them attempt 20 minutes of home exercises on other days. This is roughly 3-4 hours of physical therapy a week. That is about 2% of their week that they are a patient. That leaves 98% of their week to be people. These are people with families, jobs, responsibilities, quirks, misgivings, and goals.
We are taught to recognize all of these things in school and incorporate them into our treatments but I can honestly say, much of this gets lost in our physical therapist minds. Get their back feeling better, get them moving better, etc are our thoughts. The problem and the solution here is that we are dealing with people; not injuries or disabilities, not only a central nervous system, faulty movement patterns, someone with depression, a stroke, an ACL, TKA, or other abbreviation.
People-first language prevents us from categorizing someone as an injury or disability. People-first language reminds us that we are working with humans. To better understand our patients we need to better understand people. Professionally, I do not think that any amount of research on the brain, or studies into behavior will ever be able to entirely capture the uniqueness and beauty of each human, even the ones we can’t stand working with.