Language and Intent, Part 2 of 3: The Difference between Person First Language and Putting the Person First

To my most avid readers: you will recognize this as primarily a reprint of an archival post on the blog.  I have reworked it slightly to fit into this series, and also assume that, since it was posted as part of my launch collection, and never had its own day, it is new content for the vast majority of readers.  Enjoy! 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.  As I pointed out in some length in part one of this series, sometimes indifference tells its own story.

And yet, unlike the lack of reflection that I posited yesterday, focused as it was upon words the plain meaning of which is offensive, a failure to use “person first” language strikes me as more likely to be a function a deficit in inside knowledge rather than a deficit in reflection, especially since it is far from intuitive.

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.  And strident corrections seem more likely to shame them 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.

Yesterday I argued that a lack of choice in language can demonstrate hidden attitudes and demonstrate a benignly ablest intent.  Today, I argue that one can use exactly appropriate language, and it can demonstrate nothing more than good media training.

To those who would champion person first language, I ask you, how certain are you that the person is first?