It’s easy to to put your foot in your mouth and bite down hard. Not even deliberately. Just without knowing. And when we’re frightened, stressed by unfamiliar and uncomfortable situations, it’s twice as easy. I’ve posted about cursing, and self-talk, before, as defenses against damaging inwardly-directed verbal habits. I’m looking outward today.
Sherwood Community Services, an advocacy agency for people with disabilities in Snohomish County, WA, produces a hand-out about “People First Language.” The card challenges its readers to reframe their words, and by implication their ideas, about the challenges and abilities of differently-abled and neurodiverse people. Rather than saying “She’s learning disabled,” say “she has a learning disability.” “She’s wheelchair bound” can be restated as “She uses a wheelchair.” People First Language destigmatizes differences by reminding us that someone in a wheelchair isn’t “just” someone in a wheelchair. That someone can be Stephen Hawkings, or your best friend who is also a gourmet cook, a goof with a ridiculous grin, and any other attribute you can name. That someone in a wheelchair uses that chair just the way other people use a bicycle or a car.
But Sandra Claire Andrews, an Institute for Challenging Disorganization colleague, reminded me that nothing is simple in a teleclass she presented on autism. The phrasing “person with autism,” or “person who is blind,” “person who is deaf,” implies that autistic, blind, deaf, people, and/or others with innate differences, can somehow be divorced from their state of being. Many people affected by permanent conditions such as autism therefore object to the phrasing – they consider it as shaming as any truly repulsive naming such as “retard.” An emphatic, heartfelt embracing of differences calls for “autistic person,” “blind person,” etc. This pointer to an eloquent argument against People First Language, written by Dr. C. Edwin Vaughan in March 2009, is a cry for tolerance which is just as timely today. He objects to People First Language as, first of all, just plain awkward. Second, he considers it artificial – real people, with real disabilities, are at the forefront of educating non-disabled people, and no fancy expressions change that fact.
Nothing’s ever easy. But keeping the conversation in mind isn’t too hard. Right now, when it is a truth that our elders, our infirm, our differently-abled, are abysmally vulnerable, it seems important to try.