By Colleen Rushnak
Nearly one in five Americans has a disability, making them the nation’s largest minority, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
As a person who is currently able-bodied, I do not think I will ever truly understand the life of a person with a disability. People with disabilities face injustices in nearly every aspect of their lives from people who refuse to understand their struggle.
Although I am not able to comprehend what life is like for America’s largest minority, I can treat people with disabilities with respect by fostering a positive environment with my words — person first language is essential to promoting full inclusion.
Traditionally, mainstream society has treated people with disabilities as second-class citizens. It is common for those without disabilities to consistently disregard the way they address these 35 to 43 million Americans. Hushed voices and words with negative connotations have characterized the way that many people speak about those with disabilities. A lack of knowledge, fear of offending people, and general disregard for others are all to blame for the way people slight those with disabilities.
Although the language used to describe disabilities might seem trivial, it is crucial to remember that words matter. Language has consequences — it can both lift people up and tear them down. Person first language is the best way to promote inclusivity between people with disabilities and people without disabilities.
For example, for an able bodied person naming a person by his or her disability by saying things like, “that Down’s kid,” “that autistic girl” or “that guy in a wheelchair,” is degrading and implies that a person is equivalent to his or her disability. The connotation behind words is just as important as the words themselves.
The connotations behind words like “autistic” and “handicapped” carry historically adverse backgrounds.
Person first language is a practice that emphasizes a person’s identity rather than his or her disability — this means mentioning a disability only when it is completely necessary, and using language that separates the disability from the person. For example, I should say “My friend Jason has autism,” not “My friend Jason is autistic.”
Another option is to use what is called identity first language. Self advocates are the biggest supporters of this kind of language. They see their disability as something that is deeply embedded in their personal identity, the same way someone would identify with their religion or ethnicity.
Although some self advocates argue otherwise, I think person first language is respectful in the sense that it places emphasis on the individual and not on what they are unable to do.
Individuals who have disabilities are so much more than what they are unable to do. People with disabilities have talents, favorite books, least favorite foods and all the wonderful attributes that make an individual different. By branding people by their disability –– which is only a single part of their identity –– we are perpetuating the myth that individuals are simply the equivalent of what they are unable to do.
People do not call me “that girl who can’t sing,” so why should we use this type of language when referring to people with disabilities?
Students share opinions around campus
“Do you think person first language is important?”
“I guess. It recognizes that you’re a person first instead of a disability first.”
“Yeah, I feel like it is less derogatory and more respectful.”