By Kim Nerone, Fundraiser/Special Events Coordinator
National Spinal Cord Injury Association – SE Wisconsin
Recently while watching a local news report on a family adopting a child from overseas, the reporter described the adopted child by saying, “This young girl is wheelchair bound.” ARGH! I wanted to scream – she is NOT wheelchair bound, she just happens to USE a wheelchair! I was more than a little offended. But this heightened awareness of “People First” Language was new to me.
As a member of Partners in Policymaking, a group of volunteer advocates working to improve the lives of people with disabilities, I recently heard a talk on the subject of People First Language. At first I must confess I thought it was just political correctness gone amuck – but the speaker explained People First Language is simply a more respectful and accurate way to speak. Acknowledging the person FIRST and NOT their condition or diagnosis really is just the Golden Rule – treating others the way you want to be treated! This struck me like a bolt of lightening! It made perfect sense to me.
- “People First” language makes a difference.
The speaker shared how many times people get caught up in describing the diagnosis, aka, the disability. I started thinking about my son and his disabilities. I am ashamed to say that more times than I would care to admit, I have put my son’s diagnosis/disability ahead of him. Thinking of the many times I have done this still makes me tearful.
I can recall times, when speaking to a teacher, for example, when I would say, “Well, he has a hearing loss, he is apraxic and dyslexic and he can at times, be very difficult to understand. He has a lot of trouble listening to a lecture and taking notes at the same time, and handwriting? Oh, let’s not even go there.” It breaks my heart to think he has heard me say these hurtful words and may have internalized it as me, his mother, seeing him as less than what he is when in fact it was simply MY ignorance of People First Language.
Now, what if while sitting with a teacher I would have simply started with his name? What a concept! Now what if instead of framing his diagnosis as a problem, I framed it in terms of “needs”? The conversation with a teacher might go something like this: “This is my son Hayden. Hayden will need to sit at the front of the class to be sure he hears everything you are saying. He will need your notes in written format so he can follow along as you lecture. He needs his textbooks on audio and uses a voice-activated computer program to write his compositions.” What a difference a few words make!
Mark Twain said it best when he said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
For more information on People First language, visit:
For those folks in the media who need an authority on People First language, here’s a great resource they should refer to…and often!
National Center on Disability and Journalism