Language is powerful, and unlike what we learn as children from the well-known saying “sticks and stones may break your bones but words can never hurt you” words do hurt. They can be powerful enough to create limitations and set low expectations. As a society we understand that it isn’t socially acceptable to use racial slurs, or to call others degrading names. But, why is this same social rule not transmitted to all situations, specifically towards people with disabilities? I recently read that around 54 million Americans have a disability of some kind. Now, the word disability is broad and there are many different types of disabilities out there. BUT, I can 100% assure you that even though their disabilities may be different, every single one of those 54 million Americans would agree on one thing: they do not want to be defined by their disability, they are people first!
Take a moment to consider their feelings. How horrible it must be to feel as if your disability embodies all of who you are, causing others to pity you, or think that you are helpless. By using labels, it creates an image that they are “less-than” or "not the same". They become prisoners to their disabilities. It is time to help them break free from the stereotypes and from the shackles of their disability. They are people first! We are all people first.
As individuals we are constantly changing and evolving who we are. People with disabilities do not always have that same privilege, because they are defined solely by their disability. If you do not use people-first-language you are robbing others from discovering who they really are, you would be taking away their identity. I understand that the “politically correct” terminology for special education is always changing and hard to keep up with. You probably have said things in conversation that you did not even know was hurtful or offensive. However, you can be sure that one thing will always stand true, when referring to a person with a disability, the person always comes first before the disability or diagnosis! Using people-first-language is not rocket science, it is just common courtesy, and it is the respectful and polite thing to do.
As a teacher with a special education degree, I have learned all about using “people-first-language.” However on July 25th, it all became very real to me. My son, Anthony, was born with Down Syndrome. After receiving this diagnosis, I understood more than ever why it was so important to use appropriate language. I do not want Down Syndrome to ever define who my son is. My heart aches when I hear people refer to him as “the down’s boy”, or “my down syndrome son”. It pains me to even write those things. He is amazing, loveable, funny, and sweet…just like any other baby. That is how I want him to be treated, just like any other baby. He just happens to have Down Syndrome, but it does not make him who he is. It is a little part of his whole; it is not a primary defining characteristic. I want Anthony to have all of the opportunities and experiences he can in life. I want him to grow up and create his own identity. I know he will accomplish amazing things, if we give him the chance. I will never limit him because of his diagnosis, and neither should you. So please, help me to spread the knowledge of using people-first-language and we can start putting emphasis on the person rather than the disability.
Here are a few examples of how to use people-first-language:
Say this: Instead of this:
He has Down Syndrome Downs boy/ down syndrome person
He has Autism He’s autistic/ the autistic person
She has a cognitive disability She is retarded
She receives special ed. services She is special ed/ a special ed. girl
Child/person with disabilities Disabled person
When I first learned about Anthony having Down Syndrome I came across a few videos with messages from the NDSS about how we are all more alike than different. I decided to make my own video since these videos were made with adults. Please watch and share the video staring Anthony and his friends! I will also post the other two videos with the same message!