Choosing Person-First Language
By: Jacob Conklin
When people ask, and inevitably they do, about how I became involved with Special Olympics and special education I give a canned response based on the audience. It never fails though that someone always asks if it is because of a family member; maybe I have a brother, niece, cousin or even a parent with special needs. When I explain that I do not have a family member with a disability I usually receive the same response from everyone, nodding and saying “oh, okay.” This is followed by them tilting their head slightly with a look of bewilderment. I have always been troubled by this response because I never know how to take it, but at this point I accept that it will happen and move on.
The truth is I am involved in special education because of Special Olympics but there is not one defining factor that set me on this course but there are many AH-HA moments that have propelled me deeper down the rabbit hole. Most people would comment that I am naturally compassionate or maintain superhero levels of patience (I do not by the way, as my students can willing attest), I would say that my natural curiosity and desire to know people was the trait that led me here. To be completely honest, I was the kid, teenager, young adult who stared, gaze fully locked on the person in the wheelchair. This was followed up by a prompt tap on the head and a “stop, you are being rude” by a parent, sibling, teacher or friend. This cycle of natural curiosity matched with an attention getting rap to the head combined with “it’s rude to stare” started a long and twisted association of recognizing people with disabilities as being rude a gesture on my part and thus wrong, punishable by a quick finger strike to my head. As I look back on this mutated association I realize this is probably a typical story for most people. We were young, innocent and curious about the world around us. Incessantly asking our parents questions, “why is the sky blue”, “where do babies come from”, “why does that person use a wheelchair”, “why does he talk funny”, and “why does she look different?” No question was asked with malice or malicious intent, just childlike curiosity.
Jumping ahead two decades I was still the onlooker with hidden curiosity. However, I was too afraid to talk to that person in a wheelchair or anyone who had a visible disability, ashamed to want to know his or her story. It was far better to ignore and be ignorant than be rude. As I found myself toying with the idea of making a second career in the field of special education I discovered a concept that would change the way I perceived my world and how I thought about people with disabilities.
People-first language is a form of linguistic prescriptivism in English, aiming to avoid perceived and subconscious dehumanization when discussing people with disabilities, as such forming an aspect of disability etiquette.
The basic idea is to impose a sentence structure that names the person-first and the condition second, for example “people with disabilities” rather than “disabled people”, in order to emphasize that “they are people first”. Because English syntax normally places adjectives before nouns, it becomes necessary to insert relative clauses, replacing, e.g., “asthmatic person” with “a person who has asthma.” – Wikipedia
A veil had been lifted and I suddenly found solace in the idea that I should see the person before any other condition. It took time to change my language but by forcing myself to change the words I used. I changed my way of thinking about and how I saw people with disabilities. The language eventually became automatic and I began to embrace the curiosity that had been long repressed. No longer was I bound to the chain of thoughts “a disability… I am rude… must ignore”. Person-first language was eye opening and yet so simple, if I consciously change my words it would (and did) lead to me thinking and seeing people before the condition.
“Nick is learning disabled” would be a common phrase in my world of education. It bears no malicious intent but it is a statement with a sense of absoluteness. Saying “Nick IS learning disabled” is saying he is the condition, he is the disability; however using person-first language we would state that “Nick has a learning disability.” The difference is very subtle and to many it may even seem trivial. It was this small change that clicked with me. No longer was I focused on the condition, I could see the person and recognize the condition as an attribute of their whole.
I am not here to tell you how to speak or to assume the role of word police but to simply weave a narrative of how person-first language has been a very useful tool in my life. Person-first language is not the same as being politically correct, person-first language is much (can be) more substantial than just being PC. Full disclosure, I am aware of all the criticisms against using person-first language and how some advocacy groups or disability cultures abhor its use. Again, I am just trying to create a narrative about how utilizing person-first language has been a useful in my experiences.
If you are still with me I am sure you have asked or are asking yourself what does this have to do with Special Olympics. I am writing this menagerie of irreverence in hopes someone somewhere decides to supplement or enhance their Spread the Word program by using person-first language. One of the difficulties I have seen over the last 7 or 8 years of ban the r-word programming is that there is a disconnect between the impassioned few and the ill-informed mass. I have seen teenager and adult alike employ a wide spectrum of strategies to combat the use of the r-word. The disconnect is in us telling someone else they have done and are doing something wrong by using the r-word. People who generally mean well and use the r-word use it much the same reason a habitual swearer uses curse words. They lack a robust enough accessible vocabulary and the r-word much like cuss words easily fill the all those roles of speech, it can serve as a noun, verb, adjective, and adverb. However, there is also the case of the educated person who still chooses to use it. To this I say we have to change the way people chose their words. I doubt the masses wake up and consciously decide “today I will try and use as many offensive words as possible.” So why are people using the r-word? I think back to times when I have said something I should not have and try to figure why I said it. How did I decide to use the words or words that I let slip from my mouth? I recognize I had control of my actions but I wasn’t consciously selecting each and every individual word that came forth. There was a level of automaticity to it; I knew what was coming or what I wanted to get across but sometimes certain words just come up as we look for other ones.
How do we change how we think or our subconscious word selection? The answer for me was people first language. If you find this as intriguing as I initially did, and continue to, I implore you to give it a try. It may take a few days, weeks, or even months but it has the potential to impact how you see people around you. My hopes are that in time you will share it with the people around you as I have with my students, colleagues, and friends who can attest to its affects.
For further information on
Person-first language in writing and journalism
Jacob Conklin is a special education teacher at Pleasant Hope R-VI School District in Pleasant Hope, Missouri. Conklin has interned with Special Olympics International and is a Student Council advisor.