Why Words Matter

Man with a disability laughing with a woman at a cafe

Let’s Talk: Disability Language

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). We take this opportunity to highlight the many contributions of America’s workers with disabilities and promote a culture of inclusiveness.

One out of five people in America has a disability, making them our nation’s largest “minority.” The group represents all ages, genders, ethnicities, and socioeconomic levels. The likelihood of joining this group is high. Disability can be acquired at birth, in the blink of an eye due to an accident or injury, or acquired from illness or age.

Despite its frequency, many people are still uncomfortable talking about disability. This uncomfortableness contributes to the obstacles that people with disabilities face in obtaining employment or fully integrating with their workforce. The truth is that there are as many preferences about ways to identify a person with a disability as there are individuals. So what is a well-intentioned person to do? When in doubt: ask. We’ll get to that in a minute, but first, let’s talk about two distinct (and oft-debated) approaches to disability language.

Person-First Language (PFL)
People-first language is generally at the heart of our organization’s disability awareness training. The emphasis is on the person – not the disability or condition. Those who support people-first language (PFL) believe that using a diagnosis or condition as a defining characteristic robs the person of the opportunity to define him or herself. PFL was developed to address the stigma often associated with disability. Advocates wanted to reaffirm that disability does not, in fact, lessen one’s personhood. As such, the PFL movement encourages the use of phrases like “person with a disability,” or “person with autism” instead of “disabled person” or “autistic person.”

The disability community is not only large; it is often divided. Increasingly, a second preference is being voiced: Identity-First Language (IFL).

Identity-First Language (IFL)
For those who prefer identity-first language, “disabled person” is a perfectly acceptable way to identify a person. Their belief is that PFL purposefully separates a person from their disability, presuming that disability is something a person should dissociate from to be considered a whole person.

From their perspective, it also implies that “disability” or “disabled” are negative, derogatory words when, for many, disability is just a part of their being or uniqueness. Within the Autistic community, IFL is preferred by many when Autism is considered as a part of a person’s identity. Using IFL language, you would say that someone is “Autistic,” not a “person with autism.” However, even people with IFL preferences draw an important distinction when it comes to the use of a term strictly for its medical definition. You would never refer to a person based on a diagnosis such as “Down syndrome person” or “cerebral palsy person.”

Confused? You are not alone. So what’s a person to do?

JUST ASK.
The debate between PFL and IFL is proof that words do matter. Language, however, is never “one-size-fits-all.” When in doubt, do not assume. Ask the person how they choose to identify.
Words and language are powerful tools. Language, and the meanings we attach to words, have the power to influence, develop, and change attitudes and beliefs. Each person’s use of language and identity are deeply personal. Just ask and respect their choice.

Quick note: Always avoid terms that dis-empower people or have negative meanings like “handicapped,” “wheelchair-bound,” “crippled,” etc. And please, never use the “R” word. The word “retarded” is a highly offensive term for people with intellectual disabilities.

For more information about People-First and Identity-First Language, here are a few more:

Why Person-First Language Doesn’t Always Put the Person First

Describing People with Disabilities

Identity-First Language

Communicating With and About People with Disabilities

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