Monday, July 11, 2011

Importance of People First Language

My first introduction to “people first language was nearly two years ago when I was interning at Disability Rights Washington. At the time, I was brand new to the disability movement. I made the mistake of saying that the office door had a “handicapped” sign on it. The entire office gasped at my error and my boss gave me some information on people first language. Ever since that experience, I have worked hard to promote people first language. To me, people first language pays respect to people with disabilities- they are on a grammatical level playing field. Rather than being defined by a disability, an individual is acknowledged for who he/she is, a unique human being. A disability is no longer a defining characteristic; it is an afterthought in a sentence.

I understand that "people first" may be unfamiliar to a number of people and I encountered this with someone I know at work. This person is new to the disability movement and kept referring to people with disabilities as “disabled persons”. I asked him why he did that, and he responded that it was easier to write that way. I told him about "people first" language and the important role it plays. I expected him to embrace it, but he didn’t. I was shocked to be challenged about the grammatical intricacies of people first by someone who wants to work as an attorney for people with disabilities. I believe that as advocates we have the responsibility to advance this movement and use appropriate terminology. The English language has prejudiced people for centuries. To achieve equality for people with disabilities advocates must take the first step forward, even if in this case it sounds a little weird!

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