Elise Ronan
Justice, justice, you shall pursue....

The importance of “People First” language

Words have a reach beyond their limited definitions. Words have a reach in the interactive and human sense. Every word has a value, every word has a purpose and every word has an unintended outcome. It is important that we understand the true nature and power of words. It is why we are always admonished to think before we speak. It is why there is a prohibition against lashon hara, or speaking evil.

One of the more politically correct versions of words is the limitation that some people put on the use of certain words. They tell you what you cannot say or how you can use a word and why. While egos do get bruised and there is much overreach when detailing “good verbiage versus bad”, it is important to remember that the old adage about words never hurting is a falsity. Now many rail against word correctness and call it mind control, deride the thought police and tell the insulted to get over themselves. But to be understanding of the power of words is not about control but respect. Respect for the society in which you live and for the people whom you address.

One aspect of special needs, which is very important, is what is termed “people first” language. It is the concept that when discussing, talking to, or even thinking about someone with a disability it is essential to remember that you are talking about a human being. It is an important part of being able to see the human being before the disability. It is the first step in acknowledging that the person who stands, or sits, before you, is essentially really just like you.

While it is human nature to compartmentalize our societies, especially when confronted with the realities of others’ frailty, it does no one any good to try to create the “other” in society. People want to separate out those with disabilities or special needs not because of a dislike or a sense of superiority, but in so many cases these special needs issues truly are the stuff of nightmares. Fear of the unknown. Fear of the realities. Fear of life being harder than need be for those you love so dear. Fear is a guiding factor that people may not even realize can take control of their soul.

It is human nature to say that these issues, this trauma, is not about me and mine. Oh you are kind and generous to those with special needs. You are not cruel or disenfranchise those with special needs. You go out of your way to incorporate or include those with special needs into your world. But in the end, you use language to separate out those in society that are different. Your words become a type of good luck charm against the ayin hara, the symbolic lamb’s blood on your lintel to ward off G-d’s feared angel. But words, while they may elicit a feeling of relief, can also destroy. It is essential that when using words, that the words invoke the entirety of the person.

So how does this work? Simple. When discussing a person who has autism you do not say autistic person, but person with an autism spectrum disorder. You do not say retarded person, but a person with an intellectual disability. (Actually using the word “retarded” is acknowledged as denigrating another human being. It is seen as part and parcel of bullying and hate speech. This is because society’s purpose and meaning for words changes throughout history.) You do not say the word “cripple” or use any derogatory connotation for someone who has cerebral palsy or needs a wheelchair. Ultimately the idea behind “people first” language is that a person who has a disability is also not defined by that disability.

A disability is only one part, at times a very small part, of a person and it doesn’t have to be a limiting part of them either. Judge a person by who they are and what positive abilities they posses, instead of looking to their disability to see what they cannot accomplish. You might learn that it is your perspective of a disability that holds someone else back, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with the person before you. Find the unique ability and the unique treasure in that person. You might be surprised the contributions they can make to the world in which we live. It is why I always ask people to see my “boys,” not my “boys with Asperger’s.”

Persons with disabilities are so much more than their issues. They like the rest of humanity have their likes, dislikes, talents and abilities. It may be foolish to some, but instead of using the term disabled use the term “differently abled.” Learn to see the positive in life and to promote differences in a positive way. Words have the ability to be empowering and not limiting.  Giving strength to others is what we need to remember when using words. How we describe someone in society defines them, their role in our world and our interactions with them.  It is essential that while defining those with disabilities, we also don’t limit them.

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
― Albert Einstein

About the Author
#RenegadeJew ...Elise's specific background deals with the practical aspects of raising special needs children. She has over 20 years experience advocating for her sons and others. Her motto: Don't put off the important things. Stand up for what you believe in. Do what is right and honest. Have patience. Have self-respect. Be kind. And above all BE BRAVE. Elise is a graduate of Boston University Law School and a Certified College Transition Coach for Persons with Asperger's Syndrome. She blogs under a pen-name to protect her sons' privacy.