News from LINC


A Few Words About People First Language

by Kathie Snow

    People with disabilities constitute our nation’s largest minority group. It’s also the most inclusive: all ages, genders, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and socioeconomic levels are represented.
     Yet the only thing people with disabilities have in common is being on the receiving end of societal misunderstanding, prejudice, and discrimination. And this minority group is the only one that anyone can join, at any time: at birth, in the split second of an accident, through illness, or during the aging process. If and when it happens to you, how will you want to be described?
     Words matter! Old and inaccurate descriptors perpetuate negative stereotypes and reinforce a powerful attitudinal barrier. A disability is a medical diagnosis, and when we define people by their diagnoses, we devalue and disrespect them. Do you want to be known primarily by your psoriasis, gynecological history, or the warts on your behind? Using medical diagnoses incorrectly – as a measure of a person’s abilities – can ruin peoples lives.
     Embrace a new paradigm: Disability is a natural part of the human experience.  Yes, disability is natural, and it can be redefined as “a body part that works differently.” A person with spina-bifida has legs that work differently. A person with Down syndrome learns different, and so forth. People should no more be defined by the medical diagnoses than by gender, ethnicity, religion, or other traits!
     A diagnosis may become a sociopolitical passport for services, entitlements, or legal protections. Thus, the only places where the use of a diagnosis is relevant are medical, educational, legal, or similar settings.
     People First Language puts the person before the disability, and describes what a person has, not what a person is. Are you “cancerous” or do you have cancer? Is a person “handicapped/disabled” or does she “have a disability”? Using a diagnosis as a defining characteristic reflects prejudice, and also robs the person of the opportunity to define himself.
    Let’s reframe “problems” into “needs.” Instead of “He has behavior problems,” we can say “He needs behavior supports.”  Instead of “confined to a wheelchair” let’s say “uses a wheelchair.” And let’s eliminate the “special needs” descriptor. It generates pity and low expectations.
    A person’s self image is tied to the words used about him. People First Language reflects good manners, nor “political correctness.” 

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