I don’t think I’ll ever forget the day I arrived at George Washington University for my summer internship with the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) on May 24th. It was exciting, but I particularly remember that the university summer staff giving out our room keys kept saying “AADP,” instead of “AAPD.” It’s a simple mistake, but I really wanted to joke about it with them about how the politically correct term was now PD or actually PWD (for “people with disabilities”), instead of DP (for “disabled persons”), but I decided that they probably wouldn’t get it if they couldn’t even get the name of the organization right.
But then I thought a little more about the difference between PD vs. DP, and I wondered why the disability rights movement was so insistent on people first language, particularly when most other civil rights advocates actually embrace identification with their respective differences. For example, you wouldn’t say “persons with African American heritage,” but rather “African Americans,” which directly ties their heritage to their identity. Likewise, one of the chants in the gay pride movement was “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it,” not “We’re here, we’re people with queer tendencies, get used to it.” The slogan shows pride in gay sexual orientation as a source of identity. So why is it different for people with disabilities?
Person first language puts the person before the disability literally, emphasizing that someone is a human being first and anything else second. For me however, there is another level to this reason for the difference in wording and attitudes between the disability rights movement and other civil right movements. By definition, disabilities detract from a person’s ability in one way or another. Having dark pigment or preferring one gender over another are differences, which only become detriments through society’s perception of them. On the other hand, persons with disabilities will always struggle because of their physical or other conditions, even in a society that is tolerant of them.
But it is of course from these struggles that people with disabilities can draw the most pride. Persons with disabilities must constantly posses the strength to overcome the many challenges that their conditions pose. This strength can be the physical muscle needed to roll a wheelchair down a street or the mental willpower a person with Autism needs to look someone in the eye. Given this, the insistence on person first language makes sense, because defining individuals by their disabilities first would give too much credit to the disability, rather than to the strength each one of us brings to each day of our lives to make ourselves more than our disabilities.