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Language Matters

Language is continually evolving. It's important to stay current to communicate effectively and with respect.  It is also important to be culturally sensitive to the population about which one is speaking.  What makes this issue challenging is that communities of individuals do not agree on preferred terms or language.  In the intellectual/developmental disability community, advocates push for, and prefer, people first language; asking that emphasis be placed on the person first, rather than the disability. They request use of words that reflect awareness, dignity and a positive attitude about people with disabilities[1].  Conversely, in the autism community, many self-advocates and their allies prefer what they call identity first language.[2]

This tension is also evident in other communities. The National Federation of the Blind adopted a resolution in 1993 condemning people-first language. The resolution dismissed the notion that "the word 'person' must invariably precede the word 'blind' to emphasize the fact that a blind person is first and foremost a person" as "totally unacceptable and pernicious" and resulting in the exact opposite of its purported aim, since "it is overly defensive, implies shame instead of true equality, and portrays the blind as touchy and belligerent".[3]  In Deaf culture, person-first language has also long been rejected. Instead, Deaf culture uses Deaf-first language since being culturally deaf is a source of positive identity and pride.[4]

"Nothing about us without us" has long been a phrase used by the disability community to communicate the idea that there should be full and direct participation of the members of the group(s) affected by that policy.  COPAA advocates with, and on behalf of, varied individuals.  Presenters and writers need to know what language and terms the community they are speaking/writing about feels is appropriate and respectful.

People First vs. Identify First

People First Language
People first language puts the person before the disability—and eliminating old, prejudicial, and hurtful descriptors, can move us in a new direction. People First Language is not political correctness; instead, it demonstrates good manners, respect, the Golden Rule, and more—it can change the way we see a person, and it can change the way a person sees herself![5].  Self-Advocates in the intellectual disability community and their allies strongly encourage people first language.


Identity-first Language

Identify-first Language places the disability-related word first in a phrase. People who prefer identity-first language often argue that their disability is an important part of who they are, or that they wouldn’t be the same person without their disability. For some people, identity-first language is about a shared community, culture, and identity. Identity-first language is also about thinking about disability as a type of diversity instead of something to be ashamed about or changed. Some communities that use identity-first language are the Autistic, Deaf, and Blind communities.[6]

Of course, each person may choose to refer to themselves differently than most members of the community or communities with which they identify.  It is a good idea to ask a person how they identify if you are writing about them or introducing them to others.

Language to Simply Not Use

Use of the word "retard" or taking the name of any disability and using that as an insult.   Sometimes words used with well-intention can also be rejected.  An example of this is the use of the term "special needs."  Some advocates feel its use perpetuates pity and marginalization. There are many derogatory phrases that denote disability -- i.e. spaz out, are you deaf? Can't you see that? etc., etc.   Please be mindful of able-ism and make the commitment to making language as neutral as possible (as well as committing to an open attitude to helping each other along this path by taking and giving feedback on language in a positive manner).                                                                  


Check Yourself

 o   Is my language culturally sensitive?

 o   Am I in doubt?  Ask!

 o   Do the words I use treat the person as an equal, and promote equity, dignity and respect?

 o   Have I used any words that many find insulting - for example special, inspirational, challenged or suffering from?

Identity First Resources/Writing

People First Resources/Writing

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