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Refreshing Disability Language

The rise of person-first language means that we no longer refer to people as ‘disabled’ but rather ‘a person with a disability’. Similarly, a person who has schizophrenia would no longer be labelled ‘a schizophrenic’. Imagine going to a party and being introduced to someone as “This is my Diabetic Swedish colleague." Absurd, right?

For those of us seeking a more just, tolerant and open world—millions of people all over this planet—questioning 
and reframing language matters a great deal. Language not only reflects but creates the realities we experience. Sometimes, people who challenge stereotypes and labels are accused of being “overly sensitive” or “politically correct”. Yet our human history and countless studies have proven that labels, or being the target of ongoing bigotry, can negatively alter the destiny of a person, race, ethnic group or nation.

Identity-First Language

More recently, identity first language is gaining ground. Rather than view disability as a deficit, those who favour this language are choosing to embrace their disability as a meaningful part of who they are, a valuable part of their life experience. The thinking is, according to advocates, that attempting to separate people from their disabilities with language implies there is something shameful or weak about those conditions, that others need help to see past ‘a terrible affliction.'

Many people within the autism community, in particular, prefer identity-first language. For example, Sue Abramowski believes that using identity-first language serves to redefine the word disability, and that “to separate autism from someone would be to make them a totally different person [because] it's an operating system”. Says another young man, Alex Lowry:

Personally, I don’t see anything offensive about the term “autistic.” I use it quite frequently to describe others and myself on the spectrum. First, let me ask a rhetorical question. Would it be offensive if someone said, “the man is tall” or “the girl is blond”? Does that sound offensive? Would it be better to say, “he’s a man who’s tall” or “she’s a girl who has blond hair”? The answer of course is no.  

Regardless of belief or preference, the point is that people today have choice. The folks at Sudbury & District Board of Public Health have done an awesome job of explaining why paying attention to language matters so very much, and offer respect for both person-first and identity-first language. Finally, Humber College offers an excellent guide featuring 10 Guiding Principles for communicating on disability-related topics.

Bottom line, if you are unsure, ask the person! 

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this blogpost “Advocating for Happy” in which we’ll explore how choosing certain words has the potential to either water down, or breathe new life, into a movement.


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