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ADA @ 30: People/Person-first Language or Disability-First language - a Personal Choice

Jul 13, 2020

Words Have Power image

Recently Nancy Zimmer, volunteer host of Enabled contacted me seeking advice on an article she had planned to read from Britannica which uses language that labels “the blind” throughout the article. Nancy knew that WXXI Reachout Radio has always adopted a policy of using people/person-first language, and she wanted advice on what to do.

At a time when society is hyper-sensitive to all forms of exclusion, injustice, and quick to dismiss people for just about any reason at all, I thought I’d take a moment to point out why WXXI Reachout Radio has chosen to embrace inclusivity and personal respect by using people/person-first language.  As the title of this article implies however, there is no absolute right or wrong here.  Whether a person chooses to use person-first language or disability-first language is, in fact, a personal choice. My goal is not to try to convince anyone one way or the other, or say anything to offend anyone.  My goal is simply to shine a spotlight on how the words we use matter.

When I first began my career working for Reachout Radio, one of the board members, the late Betty Morton, introduced me to the concept of people-first language. Her personal story, description and opinion on the subject has stuck with me for more than three decades. She explained how labeling people by using “the blind” marginalizes and groups people as “different,” “less than” and “not like us,” and can justify discrimination, devaluation and prejudice.

People-first language, as Betty described, puts the whole person before the disability, and removes potentially hurtful descriptors and helps society move forward, recognizing that all people have worth and deserve respect. People-first language describes what the person has, and not who the person is. So  a “person who is blind,” “a woman who uses a wheelchair,” “a child who is deaf,” “a man dealing with mental illness” or some other disability; he or she deserves the right to be seen as a person first, and the right to participate in all aspects of society as a fellow citizen.

Over the past 30 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law, many people have expressed opinions on this issue.  The ADA actually has published Guidelines for Writing About People with Disabilities. The ADA states that “The words you use and the way you portray individuals with disabilities matters…”and that we should portray “individuals with disabilities in a respectful and balanced way by using language that is accurate, neutral and objective.” They also say that “labeling a person equates the person with a condition and can be disrespectful and dehumanizing. A person isn’t a disability, condition or diagnosis; a person has a disability, condition or diagnosis.”

The ADA also reminds us however, that people have different viewpoints on this issue, and that we should ask people personally if they have a specific preference in the language to be used or how they “identify.” Some people see their disability as an essential part of who they are, and they prefer disability-first language, such as a deaf person, or an autistic person.

Today, how people “identify” is a hot issue, whether it is gender identity, racial identity, disability identity or some other identifying term. But no matter how a person “identifies,” they should be respected and not labeled as different or marginalized.  In March 2015 Cara Liebowitz published an article, I am Disabled: On Identity-First Versus People-First Language.  Although Cara recognizes that the idea of person-first language is designed to promote respect, she states in the article, “My disability, among many other things, is integrated into who I am. There is no way to separate me from my disability.”

She goes on to say that the problem stems from society’s belief that a disability is something negative.  “In a nutshell, the social model says that though our impairments (our diagnostic, medical conditions) may limit us in some ways, it is the inaccessibility of society that actually disables us and renders us unable to function.”  After all, people with disabilities are able to do almost anything they set their minds to, given the tools, technology and support they need to do them, and eliminating the barriers that can stand in their way.

As we can see, the words we use absolutely do matter, and the words we choose to use are an individual’s choice.  Here at WXXI Reachout Radio, we have chosen to use people-first language out of respect for the individuals who need and use this service. We will continue to uphold that belief in the content we put out and the way we relate to our listeners.  If you choose to identify differently or use different language, we respect that, as it is your choice.  No matter what language is chosen, please know that each person is valued, respected and served equally here at WXXI Reachout Radio.