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What's wrong with ‘seeing the person first’?

12 March 2020
9 min read
Volume 29 · Issue 5


Person-first thinking makes it a virtue to ‘see the person, not the disability’, overlooking, or making an effort to overlook, a person's impairment in order to see ‘the person within’. This might seem a caring and compassionate approach in everyday nursing practice, but on closer examination it can be seen as unhelpful and even discriminatory. This article considers why this should be the case and introduces the affirmation model as a basis for a different way of thinking about the issue.

Person first thinking makes it a virtue to ‘see the person not the disability’, considering it a kindness to overlook, or to make an effort to overlook, a person's impairment in order to see ‘the person within’ (Michalko, 2002). At first glance, this might seem a caring and compassionate approach within everyday nursing practice; however, on closer examination it can be seen as unhelpful and possibly even discriminatory. It rests on outdated Cartesian ideas about the body and the self—as if the disabled person is trapped within a ‘flawed’ body and that there is a ‘normal’ healthy person struggling to get out (Cameron, 2014:17–19). It is also based on a number of misplaced assumptions about the experience of impairment, treating this as something invariably unpleasant and regrettable (Morris, 1991). Furthermore, it involves a persistent way of thinking about impairment that has long been contested by disabled people (Cameron, 2015).

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