Last week I read two articles in Time and People magazines that referred to individuals with Down syndrome as “Downs,” “Downs syndrome kids,” and even “the disabled.” Say what you will about the quality of my personal magazine subscriptions, but do a search for “the disabled” on the Washington Post or the New York Times Web sites and see how much it pops up. It’s everywhere.
Today, March 3, happens to be the official awareness day of the Special Olympics’ nationwide campaign to discontinue derogatory use of the “r-word” and promote acceptance of people with intellectual disabilities. I encourage all of you to pledge your support at www.r-word.org.
Media outlets have been stepping all over themselves recently trying to report on this campaign, the “Family Guy” vs. Sarah Palin incident, and Rahm Emanuel’s misstep. As tasty as those stories are, I wish journalists would slow down their mouths and fingers long enough to process the actual language they use to describe people with disabilities. While the word “retard” certainly occurs in public discourse much more often than it should, it is indicative of a much larger and more widespread problem.
From a clinical, grammatical standpoint, I understand that terms like “the disabled” fit better in a headline and possibly flow better into a microphone than the sometimes-clunky “people with disabilities.” But it’s the “people with” part that is essential. People with disabilities are not their disability. They are people.
That idea bears repeating. The people part comes first. The creative name we have for that nifty turn of a phrase is called “people-first language.” It’s not a fad, and it’s not about political correctness. It’s about the power of language to shape our fundamental ideas about the rights and values of people.
If you refer to people with disabilities as “the disabled,” you turn them into a collective noun that qualifies them only by one characteristic: their disability. The word “people” is also a collective noun that means any group of human beings. So when you hear or read the word “people,” you have the vastness of humanity from which to pull your initial perception of the subject or object of that sentence. In contrast, when you hear or read “the disabled,” you draw upon not only the innately limited range of characteristics of disabilities possible on Earth, but the even more limiting range of characteristics of disabilities about which you personally know.
Of course, sometimes we don’t want to just say “people” with disabilities; we want to talk about a man with Down syndrome or children with cognitive disabilities or girls with attention deficit disorder. So we do: We just say “girl” or “boy” or “man” or any one of the many nouns at our disposal and we say it first. We use that noun, the noun that refers to the person, first.
It may sound simplistic or condescending or like we’re thinking too hard about it – and perhaps I am preaching to the choir here – but language is powerful. Disabilities are characteristics of people. Those characteristics do not, in and of themselves, define people. Until American education and public perception and cultural identification catch up to that idea en masse, we need to be bombarded with the “people first” message.
As small as it is, and as awkward as it can sound, and as worked up as we may get over it, putting the person first does make a difference. People with and without disabilities are readers and listeners and viewers of an incredible amount of content, especially with the many media sources we have access to these days. We will all read about and hear of and see people first. Even if the detail of their disability comes two words later, it still comes later.
It isn’t about political correctness. It’s about the other r-word: respect.