Words matter. Words label. Words explain. Words create perception and misperception. Words can hurt. Words can limit. Words can lift. And words can convey powerful messages. Within the disability world there has been a shift towards “people first” language, whereby the person comes first and the disability comes second. This change in language is important as people with disabilities are not solely defined by their disability, just as you are not solely defined by your gender, sexuality, heritage, marital status, etc. People with disabilities are people first, and they should be recognized as such. People first language is important because it humanizes disability. For too long people with disabilities have been marginalized, dehumanized, devalued, and prejudiced against. People first language is a reminder that the disability does not define the person, that the person is not “less than” others due to their disability, and that we are moving forward to an age where disability is neutral, neither good nor bad, but rather an adjective, a descriptor of an aspect of a person, just as gender, race, and age describes aspects of a person.
How to use people first language:
People first language is as it sounds, the person comes before the disability. Instead of saying “autistic child” say “child with autism”. In place of saying “wheelchair bound” (which should never be used) say “person who uses a wheelchair”. Instead of using the term “disabled people” use the term “people with disabilities”. The disability is secondary. It is not the defining attribute, and as such the person’s pronoun or name should come first.
Criticism of people first language:
Some find people first language to be overly wordy, repetitive and awkward. For some it is easier to utilize terms that have long been applied, and which are shorter in length, but part of the purpose of people first language is the conscious understanding that the disability does not define the person. It may be awkward and harder to use people first language, at first, as are all new habits, but people first language holds power, it helps to demonstrate that people with disabilities are people first and not solely defined by their disability.
Some people disagree with the constant shift in terms, and refuse to use the “newest” change as it will just change again. It is true that in the disability world, terms often change from generation to generation. Handicapped is no longer acceptable, neither is retardation. As our understanding of disability moves forward, so too does the language. Language can demonstrate progress, and people first language is a step forward in humanizing people with disabilities, and working to ensure that the person is seen before the disability. It may be that we switch to a different terminology with the next generation, or maybe we stop identifying people by their disability, but whatever comes next, people first language is the current respectful terminology.
One last note:
There are times in life when categorization is necessary, but most of the time the focus should be on the person. During the disability awareness seminars that Citizens for Accessible Neighbourhoods delivers, we often ask a bonus question: Hannah uses a wheelchair, how should one refer to her? The answer is that one should refer to her as Hannah. When people have disabilities, especially visible disabilities, the person they are is often overlooked for the disability they have, but Hannah is Hannah; her disability can be a box she ticks on a form for medical or governmental reasons, it can be a classification that helps in getting medical assistance, it can be a describer for understanding her accessibility issues, but for a lot of Hannah’s moments, her disability is secondary, and she is Hannah. Please remember this, and see people with disabilities as people first. Hannah should be referred to as Hannah, as that is who she is. Her disability may be a classification but so is age, gender, culture, and sexuality, and we don’t go around introducing people as “Jerry the senior”, “Christina the woman”, “Sayid the Persian” or “Judy the bisexual”. Use the classification of disability if necessary, but keep the person in mind at all times.
Society has come a long way in our treatment, understanding, and perceptions of people with disabilities (even if we still have a long way to go), and it is important for us, as a society, to demonstrate that progress through our language by utilizing people first language.