Don’t get me wrong. I love words. I believe the words we use and the way we use them are very important. But, when it comes to the issues of disabilities—acceptance, inclusion, empowerment, and accommodations—words are of secondary importance.
A new reader recently suggested that I’m a proponent of people-first language. While this assertion is wholly understandable, it is not accurate.
As a writer, I find people-first language to be clumsy. It interrupts the flow of the prose. Yet, I would readily and easily sacrifice the flow of my prose for the sake of putting people first.
Except, people-first language doesn’t do that.
People-first language doesn’t put people first, conceptually speaking. It’s a political device that puts politics first. I have far too often heard others use people-first language in an ablistic, derogatory, people-last manner.
“My son is a child with autism. It’s so horrible having a child with autism that I’ve considered taking him by the hand and jumping off a bridge.”
People-first language is only as good as the thinking of its user. Disability-first language is only as bad as the thinking of its user. When I say my children with autism or my autistic children, my language has changed but my thinking has not. If I use auties, autists, or autistic, my language has changed but my thinking has not. My children are always people first in my mind. That’s how I conceptualize them. They are people. Facets of those people manifest themselves in behaviors psychologists (and, in turn, society) describe as autism. Thus, they are people with autism.
People-first language does not change people’s thinking. People-first language just changes their speaking. To change people’s minds, their thinking needs to change. Language can help. People-first language can help. But people-first language is not the solution; and it is often the smoke-screen that disguises the problem.
Yet… Autism is somewhat unique in this respect. While I do not see “blind people” as being blind first and people second regardless of the language I use, I also do not feel comfortable citing such a disability first and the person second. I prefer, clunky as it is, to use “person with a visual impairment.” Though I will gladly use whatever the individual prefers. The same goes for other physical or mental/intellectual disabilities.
Part of the reason why I make this distinction is because Western culture has, for so very long, seen people with these kinds of disabilities as being not-whole, and therefore not valuable. It’s so easy to see the disability first. Yet, by putting the person first we can hope (however much in vain) that people will start seeing the people, regardless of their abilities/disabilities.
Yet… The more my path crosses with other disability rights advocates—those not directly associated with neurodiversity—the more I see advocates re-claiming words like “crip.” I try to respect and appreciate what they’re trying to do. I try. But the idea of calling another human being a “crip” makes me uncomfortable. But, if that is their choice, who am I to say they’re wrong?
In short, I am an advocate of people-first thinking. If we need people-first language to facilitate that thinking, then so be it. Someday I hope people-first thinking will be so strongly ingrained in our societal make-up that we can talk with and about people with any disability without having to think about what to call them.
Now, on a different note, if you’re interested in exploring language in a poetic style, I would recommend checking out http://www.wordgathering.com/ . The Inglis House Poetry Contest has two categories. One is open to all. The other is limited to writers with disabilities. The subject of poems submitted to both categories is disabilities. There’s no entry fee, but there is a prize. So, if you like to play with words give it a try! The deadline is June 1st, though, so you’ve got to be quick!