Disability 101: People-First Language
March 29, 2009
People-First Language, used to reference people with disabilities, is supposed to be pretty straightforward. I would propose that it’s not as straightforward as some might think. The basic tenets are generally agreed upon. However, when we start looking at the finer points, many people with disabilities disagree. Let’s delve deeper.
I start with a disclaimer. I am going to give my own personal opinion, as a person with a disability, about this issue. Some other people with a disability might disagree with me on some of my points. Gee, what a surprise. If you grasp this idea that different people with disabilities have different opinions, you’re halfway there.
What is People First Language? It focuses on the idea that people with disabilities are people first, and their disability comes second . . . or third. Or fourth. Or on the bottom of the list.
I have multiple sclerosis but that’s not what I want to be known for. I hate it when a person first meets me and all they want to talk about is my wheelchair or my multiple sclerosis. That’s not who I am.
Know me first as a person with my own thoughts, opinions, beliefs, experiences, career, dreams, and political associations.
Keep in mind that some phrases are no longer used in polite conversation. We never, ever use the terms mentally retarded or crippled for any reason whatsoever. In the evolution of our language, those terms have become derogatory and should never be used.
The word “handicapped” is also now becoming a derogatory term. The term originally referred to a person with a disability with “cap in hand” begging. It reverts to a time in history when people with disabilities had no rights or opportunities and were left with only begging as an option for survival. As such, many people with disabilities are offended by the use of this term.
However, the evolution of the term handicapped has not fully made it to the “throw it in the trash” stage. Accessible parking is still commonly called “handicapped parking”. I have discovered that when I try to communicate with community members about problems with accessible parking, they often look at me with a blank stare. They have no idea what I’m talking about. I must then use the dreaded term “handicapped parking” for communication to occur.
Based on the thought that we should refer to the person first and the disability second, many people promote the use of the phrase “person with a disability” instead of “disabled person”. This is your warning: here my opinion might differ from others. I don’t care if someone calls me a “disabled person”. It doesn’t bother me. Others care very much.
One of the reasons I don’t care is that it gets a little weird. As I carefully try in my writing to use the phrase “person with a disability” so I don’t offend anyone, it gets awkward to repeat the phrase over and over. Suddenly it seems like I’ve said “person with a disability” 20 million times and I can’t think of any acceptable synonyms.
Some suggest we use an acronym: PWD. However, I personally, don’t want to be known as a “PWD”. I am not an acronym.
What really gets weird is when able-bodied people feel a need to lecture me, a person with a disability, about what I should be calling myself.
Whenever an able-bodied person starts lecturing a person with a disability about People First Language, we’ve gone too far to the other side. That implies that the able-bodied person is far smarter and has a far more valuable opinion than the person with a disability