People First

A wise woman once told me that people aren’t disabled; environments are disabling.  As I sit and think about attitudes towards people who happen to have a few extra challenges in their lives, I’ve come to realize that language is also disabling.  If we accept the theory that language guides thought (i.e. that we are only able to think/conceive of things we have words for), then changing people’s language patterns can also change their thought patterns.

This concept is the main tenet of People First Language:  if we can change the way people with disabilities are referred to, we can change the way that they are perceived.  When we think of Peanut as a “child with a vision impairment” rather than a “vision-impaired child,” we put Peanut ahead of his eyesight.  We focus on him rather than on how well he can or can not see.  It enables us to look at him in terms of being a child (of course he should climb on that jungle gym, just like any other kid!), rather than in terms of his eyesight (he can’t see so well, he probably shouldn’t play on that playground with those other kids . . . ).  This enable us to raise our expectations we stop looking at the things that the person with disabilities supposedly cannot do and start expecting that they’ll find a way to do it.

Think of it this way:  if we’re not busy telling people that they can’t because of a disability, they can do amazing things.  A person who is blind or visually impaired, for example, might become a medical doctor, sew amazing quilts, ski, drive, ride a bike or any of a million other things that become possible once we realize that he or she is a person, first, who has the same abilities, hopes and dreams as any other person. When the language underscores and assumes equality–the person with disabilities is a person, first, which makes him/her the same as anyone else–we start expecting that equality.  We start looking at children with disabilities as children and expecting them to achieve at the same levels as any other children.  We look at adults with disabilities as equal and contributing members of society.  Once we have these expectations, it’s easy to see that the supports that make those expectations possible (O&M, braille instruction, accessible work environments) are necessary and should be commonly available for all.

I realize that many of us are tired of “politically correct” language and find it difficult and inexact.  Some might argue that People First Language is just another way to be PC and that using disabilities as descriptors is just “the way it is.”  “Your son is blind,” they might say.  “That’s just the way it is:  he’s a blind child.  Calling him a ‘child who is blind’ doesn’t change anything.”  Kathie Snow, a leading advocate of People First Language, would disagree. In her article, To Ensure Inclusion, Freedom, and Respect for All, It’s Time to Embrace People First Language, Snow notes that

a disability descriptor is simply a medical diagnosis, which may become a sociopolitical passport to services or legal status.  Beyond that, the definition is up for grabs, depending on which service system is accessed. . . . Thus, “disability” is a governmental sociopolitical construct, created to identify those entitled to specific services or legal protections.

Once we recognize that disabilities are medical diagnoses, it’s easy to see that they’re not the most important part of a person and shouldn’t be used to define people.  As Snow points out,

Do you want to be known for your psoriasis, arthritis, diabetes, sexual dysfunction, or any other condition?

So, it’s not a matter of being PC, it’s a matter of being accurate and polite.  After all, we generally don’t refer to former vice president Dick Cheney as “heart recipient Dick Cheney,” actor Mark Ruffalo as “brain tumor survivor Mark Ruffalo,” Mythbuster Adam Savage as “sleep apnea-sufferer Adam Savage,” or author Stephen King as “flat-footed Stephen King.”  These people aren’t known for their medical conditions:  they’re known for their accomplishments.   This is as it should be.  Using People First Language is simply applying this language and thought pattern to people with disabilities so that you can see the person rather than seeing the medical condition.

Learn more about People First Language at Snow’s Web site:

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