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Just The Way You Are – September 29, 2011 - People First Language

                I was sitting in my Employment and Labor Law class a few weeks ago at Nashville School of Law when a guy that was close to my age stated, “My wife is an architect. One of the burs in her side when designing, say, a hospital, is that she has to design it so that a blind, deaf, and wheelchair ridden person can get around by themselves in it.”
                My jaw dropped. I glanced at the guy to my right, who happened to be in a wheel chair, to see his reaction, then I looked at my friend to my left and said, “How dare a blind, deaf, wheel chair ridden person need to find their way around a hospital!” As you can tell, I was upset by this comment. It was uncompassionate, bred from ignorance, and flat out rude. The guy to my right never even flinched at the remark, which puzzled me for a second, because it was all I could do to keep my composure. As I thought about it later, I wondered why he didn’t react, then it hit me. This probably isn’t the first time he’s heard something so uneducated.

                My friends, this is a problem! Let me explain why. Can you put yourself in the shoes, for just a moment, of a parent who has a special needs child? They have to watch their precious baby grow up with difficulties that other children don’t have. They don’t get the normal parenthood experience. Their life is filled with hospitals, therapies, behavior problems that their precious children want a way out of just as much as the parents. Think for just a moment how different your life would be if your only means of mobility was a wheel chair. You can’t just jump and play with your kids, or take a walk with your husband. Go about your daily activities for an hour with a blindfold on and see what it’s like. You must depend on someone else for many, many of your simple daily functions, like getting to work, or putting on your makeup. You don’t know what your daughter’s face looks like because you’ve never seen it.

                Now imagine these things, and imagine that while you are dealing with these difficulties and just trying to live and do like everyone else, you are regarded as devalued in society. You are thought of as less important than other people because of something you have no control over and wish you didn’t have to deal with. How do you know you are a devaluation on society? Well, it might be that you heard someone call your child “retarded” or you try to go to dinner and someone makes a nasty remark about your autistic child because he isn’t behaving properly. Or how about, you’re sitting in class and someone makes a statement that people who are deaf, blind, or confined to a wheelchair don’t deserve to be able to get around a hospital like those without a disability.

                Living with or loving someone who has a disability is not easy anyways. To go about our daily lives with ridiculing and devaluing language heard about us or those we love makes something that is already painful hurt just a little bit more. Happily, though, I report, there is a solution! It is called People First Language. The whole concept is based on the premise of putting the person before the disability. This is not “political correctness.” This is common courtesy. This is ignorance being replaced by educated people who have enough respect and compassion for human life to think before they speak and make an effort to shape their words in a way that is not hurtful or demeaning!

                So let’s practice! Instead of saying, “Disabled” or “handicapped” what do you think would be appropriate? Remember, put the person BEFORE the disability. Saying someone is “disabled” defines that person by their ability, not their actual worth. If you said, “person with a disability” then you are correct. Let’s try another one! What would be appropriate instead of “wheelchair ridden” as my classmate stated?  How about “He/She uses a wheelchair for mobility.”  PFL even suggests to stop using the phrase “special needs” because it “generates pity and segregation.” Now that I think about it, I have to agree, although I know I use the term often. It has not offended me, but I am going to make an effort to change my language to stop using that phrase!

                This isn’t a list of things that we should all memorize so as not offend anyone. Not at all. These are just examples and suggestions of ways that we can take action to positively influence the way people think of those who have a disability. Where our words go, out thoughts will follow. If we begin speaking People First Language, soon it will become natural to us and we won’t even have to think about it anymore. Then, when others hear us speak it, they will begin to understand and change their way of speaking, which will in turn change their way of thinking. This can change the way the world thinks about those who have a disability, one word at a time!
                Please, please, please visit this website, It is FULL of valuable information for everyone, including a People First Language chart.


  1. isn't just disabled people who use wheelchairs in hospital settings. Injured people, ill people, new moms, etc. Gurneys are needed on a regular basis. It is all part of a hospital setting! So, this man's comments and his wife's annoyance are so ridiculous, it is crazy!


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