Guest Opinion

Tuesday, October 15, 2002

A 'people first' language

"The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug." - Mark Twain

In our society, "handicapped" and "disabled" are all-encompassing terms that are misused. People with hearing or vision impairments don't need "handicapped" parking or restrooms. Many people with physical disabilities do need accessible parking and restrooms.

If a "handicapped" entrance has a ramp for people who use wheelchairs, does the doorway have Braille signage for people with visual impairments? Accommodations that enable people with disabilities to access a facility, regardless of their disabilities, are accessible. "Disabled" is not accurate, either. Our society "corrupts" language. When a traffic reporter describes a traffic jam, we often hear, "There's a disabled vehicle on the highway." "Disabled," in that context, means "broken down."

People with disabilities are not broken. If a new toaster doesn't work, we say, "It's defective!" and we return it and get a new one. Do we return babies who have birth "defects?" The respectful term is "congenital disability." It's time we understand the power of language.

Many people who do not now have a disability will have one in the future. Others will have a family member or friend who acquires a disability. If you acquire a disability in your lifetime, how will you want to be described? How will you want to be treated? Disability issues are issues that affect everyone!

If people with disabilities are to be included in all aspects of our communities in the ordinary, wonderful and typical activities most people take for granted, they must talk about themselves in the ordinary, wonderful, typical language others use about themselves. Who are the so-called handicapped? They are moms and dads and sons and daughters, employees and employers, scientists (Stephen Hawking), friends and neighbors, movie stars (Marlee Matlin), leaders and followers, students and teachers... they are people. They are people, first.

"People First" language describes what a person HAS, not what a person IS. People First Language puts the person before the disability.

Children with disabilities are children, first. The only labels they need are their names. Parents must not talk about their children in the clinical terms used by medical practitioners. A parent of a child who wears glasses (medical diagnosis: Myopia) doesn't say, "My daughter is myopic," so why does the parent of a child who has a medical diagnosis of autism say, "My daughter is autistic?"

Adults with disabilities are adults, first. The only labels they need are their names. They must not talk about themselves the way service providers talk about them. An adult with a medical diagnosis of cancer doesn't say, "I'm cancerous," so why does an adult with a diagnosis of cerebral palsy say, "I'm disabled?"

My son, Benjamin, is 15 years old. He loves Star Wars, pretzels and playing on the computer; he collects Pez candy dispensers. He has blond hair, blue eyes and cerebral palsy. His disability is only one characteristic of his whole persona. He is not his diagnosis, and his potential cannot be defined by his disability label. In fact, among friends and family, and in typical settings, a person's disability should be irrelevant. Disability labels should only be used within the service system; they have no place in the real world.

A person's self-image is strongly tied to the words used to describe the person. For generations, people with disabilities have been described in negative, stereotypical language that has created mythical portrayals about them. Over time, these myths have taken on the power of truths, when they're actually lies. We must stop believing the myths, the lies, of labels. We have the power to create new truths about people with disabilities. Using People First Language can influence society's views and treatment of people with disabilities.

Kathie Snow is a nationally-recognized author, speaker and trainer on disability issues. She is a keynote speaker at the "Community Summit On Accessibility" sponsored by the Americans with Disabilities Act Task Force in Spencer today.