Monday, November 16, 2009

People First Language 101 (Or how I failed this course miserably)

There I was, having dinner recently with a very dear friend, and I used the word “lame” to describe something I thought was done very poorly. Did I mention my friend has a disability, one that involves mobility?

Audience: Gasp!

Me: Massive. FAIL.

My, uh, experience in unthinkingly using abelist* language got me thinking about issues of respect and dignity in not just how we treat people with disabilities, but how we speak to and about them. And the way we sprinkle our daily lingo with words like “lame,” “retarded,” “schizoid,” “madhouse,” and so on. So I thought I would jot down some pointers and drop a few hot links for all of us, so we can better check our abelist privilege at the door.

The cardinal, golden, primo rule when speaking about or to any person who has a disability is to use People First language. This is simply positive language that recognizes the person first, the disability second.


Examples of People First language include:
  • People with disabilities
  • People who use wheelchairs
  • People who are blind
  • People with a mental illness
  • People with cognitive disabilities
  • People who are deaf or hard of hearing
  • People with mental retardation
  • People with a congenital disability
And so on.

And some examples of language not to use?
  • The handicapped, not normal, not able-bodied, lame, crippled
  • Confined to a wheelchair, wheelchair bound
  • The blind
  • Insane, crazy, psycho, nuts, lunatics
  • Morons, idiots, retards, “slow”
  • The deaf
  • Mentally retarded, retarded, retards, “slow”
  • Birth defect (As in, “She suffers from a birth defect.” By the way, don’t use the verb “to suffer” when referring to a person with disability, either. Another biggie to avoid: the noun “victim.” And when using “People First” language with a person with a disability, always address the person, not the caretaker/translator.)
What happens if you mess up in front of a person with a disability? Do you have to blog a public confession like I have here? Absolutely not! We are all human, and we all make mistakes. The important thing is that you own up to your flub, apologize sincerely while not making too big a deal of it (thereby embarrassing yourself further), and think before you speak next time.  Here are a couple of educational links on People First language and why it’s important:

*Abelist: somebody who exhibits discrimination, or uses prejudiced language, against people with disabilities or in favor of able-bodied people.

-Kathy Spillman


Post a Comment