Is the Person Really First? A Critique of Person First Language

I was born handicapped. Sometime in my early childhood I was briefly physically challenged and by middle school I was disabled. I am now a person with a disability. Similarly, I have progressed from wheelchair-bound, to in a wheelchair, to a chair user.

It may surprise you to find that the actual nature of my physical condition is unchanging, and that medically, my charts have said pretty much the same thing since 1981. Medical science generally only changes names if it signifies a greater change.

This is something that I think we have lost in the progression of language around disability. Ideally meant to focus on my personhood, the phrase “person with a disability” really only serves to tell me that I am dealing with someone who is both educated, and hip to the latest lingo. It is singularly unable to tell me whether I am viewed as a person.

Now it is true. It can be jarring to hear disabled or handicapped out of the mouth of someone that ought to know better. Are they so indifferent that they did not bother to learn the latest words? Yet, maybe they just did not know. I cannot tell you how many times well-meaning individuals have been mortified upon learning that they no longer have the latest term. But, unless you are a journalist or a Member of Congress, it is not like there is anyone teaching you this stuff. Further, I have seldom met individuals who feel honored and educated by being told they got the words wrong. Like most buzzwords, it seems as likely to shame as to teach.

I feel that there are other ways, mostly to do with action, where I can find out if someone sees me first as a person. How did they treat me? Will they work with me? Do they seek my advice and my guidance in areas where I have experience or expertise? Will they joke with me, laugh with me, hoist a drink with me? Will they praise me only when I do something legitimately praiseworthy and call me out when I am insensitive or acting the fool?

These folks I now see me as a person first. I know it even if English is not their first language and they have used the archaic word crippled, or have asked, in the way one sees with Israelis, “what happened to you?”

It is important to put a person first, but I will take the right actions over the latest words any day of the week. Like the medical chart, I am only interested in the linguistic change if it signifies a true change in action.

To those who champion person first language, I challenge you. I am certain that you always say the right thing. Are you certain that you always actually put the person first?

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