Unformatted text preview: PeoPle F irst language
by Kathie Snow, www.disabilityisnatural.com
Did you know that people with disabilities constitute our nation’s largest minority group (one in five Americans has a disability)? It is also the most inclusive and most diverse group: all ages, genders, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and socioeconomic levels are represented. Contrary to conventional wisdom, individuals with disabilities are not: • People who suffer from the tragedy of birth defects. • Paraplegic heroes who struggle to become normal again. • Victims who fight to overcome their challenges. that, the definition is up for grabs, depending on which service system is accessed. The “disability criteria” for early intervention is different from early childhood, which is different from vocational-rehabilitation, which is different from special education, which is different from worker’s compensation, and so on. Thus, “disability” is a social construct, created to identify those who may be entitled to services or legal protections due to characteristics related to a medical condition. To ensure InclusIon, Freedom, and respect for all, it’s time to embrace —the PoWer of language anD labels— Nor are they the retarded, autistic, blind, deaf, learning disabled, etc.—ad nauseam! Words are powerful. Old, inaccurate descriptors and the inappropriate use of medical diagnoses perpetuate negative stereotypes and reinforce a significant and an incredibly powerful attitudinal barrier. They are people: moms and dads; sons and daughAnd this invisible, but potent, attitudinal barrier—not ters; employees and employers; friends and neighbors; the diagnosis itself—is the greatest obstacle facing students and teachers; scientists, reporters, doctors, acindividuals who have conditions tors, presidents, and more. People The difference between the right word we call disabilities. with disabilities are people, first. and the almost right word is the When we see the diagnosis as They do not constitute the difference between lightning the most important characteristic stereotypical perception: a hoand the lightning bug. of a person, we devalue her as mogenous sub-species called “the Mark Twain an individual. Do you want to handicapped” or “the disabled.” be known for your psoriasis, They are unique individuals. gynecological history, the warts on your behind, or any The only thing they have in common with other condition? one another is being on the receiving end of societal misunderstanding, prejudice, and discrimination. Furthermore, this largest minority group is the only one which any person can join at any time: at birth or later—through an accident, illness, or the aging process. When it happens to you, will you have more in common with others who have disability diagnoses or with family, friends, and co-workers? How will you want to be described and how will you want to be treated? Sadly, disability diagnoses are often used to define a person’s value and potential, and low expectations and a dismal future may be the predicted norm. We often use a person’s diagnosis to decide how/where the person will be educated, what type of job he will/won’t have, where/how he’ll live, and more, including what services we think he needs. What is a Disability?
Is there a universally-accepted definition of disability? No! First and foremost, a disability descriptor is simply a medical diagnosis, which may become a sociopolitical passport to services or legal status. Beyond With the best of intentions, we work on people’s bodies and brains, while paying scant attention to their hearts and minds. And far too often, the “help” provided can actually cause harm—and can ruin people’s lives. For “special” services frequently result in the social isolation and physical segregation of children and adults: in special ed classrooms, congregate living quarters, day programs, sheltered work environments, segregated recreational activities, and more. Are other people isolated, segregated, and devalued because of their medical conditions? “Suffers from,” “afflicted with,” “victim of,” “low/ high functioning,” and similar descriptors are inaccurate, inappropriate, and archaic. A person simply “has” a disability/medical condition. We seem to spend more time talking about the “Handicapped” is an archaic term (no longer “problems” of a person with a disability than anything used in federal legislation) that evokes negative images else. People without disabilities, however, don’t conof pity, fear, and more. The origin of the word is from stantly talk about their problems. This would result in an Old English bartering game, in which the loser was an inaccurate perception, and would also be counterleft with his “hand in his cap” and was said to be at a productive to creating a positive image. A person who disadvantage. Based on this meaning, it was applied to wears glasses, for example, doesn’t say, “I have a problem people with certain conditions. A legendary origin of seeing.” She says, “I wear [or need] glasses.” the word refers to a person with a disability begging What is routinely called a “problem” actually with his “cap in his hand.” This antiquated, derogatory reflects a need. Thus, Susan doesn’t “have a problem term perpetuates the negative image that people with walking,” she “needs/uses a wheelchair.” Ryan doesn’t disabilities are a homogenous group of pitiful, needy “have behavior problems,” he “needs behavior suppeople! Others who share a certain characteristic are not ports.” Do you want to be known by your “problems” or all alike, and individuals who happen to have disabilities by the many positive characteristics which make you the are not alike. In fact, people with disabilities are more unique individual you are? When l ike p eople w ithout d isabilities will people without disabilities than different! If thought corrupts language, begin speaking about people with “Handicapped” is often used language can also corrupt thought. disabilities in the respectful way George Orwell to describe modified parking they speak about themselves? spaces, hotel rooms, restrooms, etc. But these usually provide access for people with Then there’s the use of “wrong” as in, “We knew physical or mobility needs—and they may provide no there was something wrong when...” What must it feel benefit for people with visual, hearing, or other condilike when a child hears his parents repeat this over and tions. This is one example of the misuse of the H-word over and over again? How would you feel if those who as a generic descriptor. (The accurate term for modified are supposed to love and support you constantly talked parking spaces, hotel rooms, etc. is “accessible.”) about what’s “wrong” with you? Isn’t it time to stop us“Disabled” is also not appropriate. Traffic reporters ing the many words that cause harm? often say, “disabled vehicle.” They once said, “stalled car.” Sports reporters say, “the disabled list.” They once the real Problems are attituDinal said, “injured reserve.” Other uses of this word today anD environmental barriers! mean “broken/non-functioning.” People with disabilities The real problem is never a person’s disability, but are not broken! the attitudes of others! And a change in attitudes and If a new toaster doesn’t work, we say it’s “defecbeliefs can change everything. tive” or “damaged” and return it. Shall we return babies If educators believed in the potential of a ll with “birth defects” or adults with “brain damage”? children, and if they recognized boys and girls with The accurate and respectful descriptors are “congenital disabilities need a quality education so they can become disability” or “brain injury.” successful in the adult world of work, millions of chilMany parents say, “My child has special needs.” dren would no longer be segregated and undereducated This term generates pity, as demonstrated by the usual in special ed classrooms. If employers believed adults response: “Oh, I’m so sorry,” accompanied by a sad look with disabilities have (or could learn) valuable job or a sympathetic pat on the arm. (Gag!) A person’s needs skills, we wouldn’t have an estimated (and shameful) 75 aren’t “special” to him—they’re ordinary! Many adults percent unemployment rate of people with disabilities. have said they detested this descriptor as children. Let’s If merchants saw people with disabilities as customlearn from them, and stop using this pity-laden word! ers with money to spend, we wouldn’t have so many -2- —inaccurate DescriPtors— —Disability is Not the “Problem”— inaccessible stores, theaters, restrooms, and more. If the service system identified people with disabilities as “customers,” instead of “clients/consumers/recipients,” perhaps it would begin to meet a person’s real needs (like inclusion, friendships, etc.) instead of trying to remediate his “problems.” If individuals with disabilities and family members saw themselves as first-class citizens who can and should be fully included in all areas of society, we might focus on what’s really important: living a Real Life in the Real World, enjoying ordinary opportunities and experiences and dreaming big dreams (like people without disabilities), instead of living a Special Life in Disability World, where low expectations, segregation, poverty, and hopelessness are the norm. When a person is in a welcoming, accessible environment, with the appropriate supports, accommodations, and tools, does he still have a disability? No! Disability is not a constant state. The diagnosis may be constant, but whether it’s a disability is more a consequence of the environment than what a person’s body or mind can/cannot do. We don’t need to change people with disabilities through therapies or interventions. We need to change the environment, by providing assistive technology devices, supports, and accommodations to ensure a person’s success! using PeoPle first language is crucial!
People First Language puts the person before the disability, and describes what a person has, not who a person is. Are you “myopic” or do you wear glasses? Are you “cancerous” or do you have cancer? Is a person “handicapped/disabled” or does she have a disability? “dIsabIlIty Is a natural part oF the human experIence...”
U.S. Developmental Disabilities/Bill of Rights Act —a neW ParaDigm— If people with disabilities are to be included in Like gender, ethnicity, and other traits, a disall aspects of society, and if they’re to be respected and ability is simply one of many natural characteristics of valued as our fellow citizens, we must being human. Are you defined by your stop using language that devalues and The greatest discovery of my gender, ethnicity, religion, age, sexual orientation, or other trait? No! So how generation is that human beings sets them apart. can alter their lives by altering The use of disability descriptors can we define others by a characteristic their attitudes of mind. is appropriate only in the service system which is called a “disability”? William James (at those ubiquitous “I” team meetYes, disability is natural, and it ings) and in medical or legal settings. can be redefined as “a body part that Medical diagnoses have no place—and they should be works differently.” A person with spina bifida has legs irrelevant—within families, among friends, and in the that work differently, a person with Down syndrome community. learns differently, and so forth. And the body parts of Many erroneously share a diagnosis in order to people without disabilities are also different—it’s the way convey information, as when a parent says, “My child these differences affect a person which creates the eligihas Down syndrome,” hoping others will realize her bility for services, entitlements, or legal protections. child needs certain accommodations or supports. But In addition, a disability is often a consequence the outcome of this action can be less than desirable! of the environment. For example, most children with A diagnosis can scare people, generate pity, and/or set ADD and similar conditions are not diagnosed until up exclusion (“We can’t handle people like that...”). In they enter public school. Why is this? Could it be that these circumstances, and when it’s appropriate, we can as young children, their learning styles were supported simply describe the person’s needs in a respectful, digniby parents, preschool teachers, etc.? But once in public fied manner, and omit the diagnosis. school, if the child’s learning style doesn’t mesh with Besides, the diagnosis is nobody’s business! Have inan educator’s teaching style, the child is said to have a dividuals with disabilities given us permission to share “disability.” Why do we blame the child, label him, and their personal information with others? If not, how segregate him in a special ed classroom? Shouldn’t we dare we violate their trust! Do you routinely tell every modify the regular curriculum (per special ed law) and/ Tom, Dick, and Harry about the boil on your spouse’s or provide supports to meet his needs so he can learn behind? (I hope not!) And we often talk about people in ways that are best for him? -3- with disabilities in front of them, as if they’re not there. We must stop this demeaning practice! My son, Benjamin, is 21 years old. His interests, strengths, and dreams are more important than his diagnosis! He loves politics, classic rock, and movies, and has earned two karate belts, performed in plays, and won a national award for his Thumbs Down to Pity film. Benj is attending college, where he’s a member of Phi Theta Kappa national honor society, and he wants to become a film critic. He has blonde hair, blue eyes, and cerebral palsy. His diagnosis is just one of many characteristics of his whole persona. He is not his disability, and his potential cannot be predicted by his diagnosis. When I meet new people, I don’t whine that I’ll never be a prima ballerina. I focus on my strengths, not on limitations. Don’t you do the same? So when speaking about my son, I don’t say, “Benj can’t write with a pencil.” I say, “Benj writes on a computer.” I don’t say, “He can’t walk.” I say, “He uses a power chair.” It’s a simple, but vitally important, matter of perspective. If I want others to know what a great young man he is— more importantly, if I want him to know what a great young man he is—I must use positive and accurate descriptors that portray him as a valuable, respected, and wonderful person.
say: People with disabilities. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Paul has a cognitive disability (diagnosis). . . . . . . . . . . . . Kate has autism (or a diagnosis of...) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Ryan has Down syndrome (or a diagnosis of...) . . . . . . . . Sara has a learning disability (diagnosis). . . . . . . . . . . . . . Bob has a physical disability (diagnosis). . . . . . . . . . . . . . Mary is of short stature/Mary’s a little person. . . . . . . . . . Tom has a mental health condition . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Nora uses a wheelchair/mobility chair . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Steve receives special ed services . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Tonya has a developmental delay . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Children without disabilities . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Communicates with her eyes/device/etc. . . . . . . . . . . . . . Customer. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Congenital disability . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Brain injury . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Accessible parking, hotel room, etc. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . She needs . . . or she uses . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . The words used to describe a person have a powerful impact on the person’s self-image. For generations, the hearts and minds of people with disabilities have been crushed by negative, stereotypical words which created harmful, mythical perceptions and caused other detrimental consequences. We must stop believing and perpetuating the myths—the lies—of labels. Children and adults who have conditions called “disabilities” are unique individuals with unlimited potential, like everyone else! The Civil Rights and Women’s Movements prompted changes in language and attitudes. The Disability Rights Movement is following in those important footsteps. People First Language was created by individuals who said, “We are not our disabilities.” It’s not “political correctness,” but good manners and respect. We can create a new paradigm of disability. In the process, we’ll change ourselves and our world—as well as the lives of millions of children and adults. It’s time to care about the feelings of the people we’re talking about and the perceptions of people with disabilities which we create with our words. Isn’t it time to make this change? If not now, when? If not you, who? Using People First Language is the right thing to do, so let’s do it! ExamplEs of pEoplE first laNguagE Instead oF: The handicapped or disabled. He’s mentally retarded. She’s autistic. He’s Down’s; a Down’s person; mongoloid. She’s learning disabled. He’s a quadriplegic/is crippled. She’s a dwarf/midget. He’s emotionally disturbed/mentally ill. She’s confined to/is wheelchair bound. He’s in special ed; is a sped student/inclusion student. She’s developmentally delayed. Normal/healthy/typical kids. Is non-verbal. Client, consumer, recipient, etc. Birth defect. Brain damaged. Handicapped parking, hotel room, etc. She has a problem with. . . /She has special needs. ©2008 Kathie Snow; all rights reserved. You may copy and share this 4-page document as a handout, in its entirety. Please tell me how/when you use it ([email protected]). Protected by Copyscape: request permission before republishing in any newsletter, website, list serve, etc. Rev. 01/08. Visit www.disabilityisnatural.com for other new ways of thinking! Keep thinking—there are many other descriptors we need to change! ...
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- Spring '08
- person, largest minority group