This topic came up in my office this week, and I figured I’d throw my two cents into the blog. People-first language. Personally, the concept irritates me like none other. But before you declare me unfit to represent the disability community, or, rather, the community of people with disabilities, if you prefer, I beg you to hear me out.
First, grammar. In the English language, adjectives typically come before the noun. Adjectives give descriptions of the noun that follows, but only partial descriptions. I am a blind girl, yes, but that’s only part of who I am. I can also be the brown-eyed girl, the Portuguese girl, and, yes, the cupcake girl. Those people who believe my entire identity is based on my blindness are just as wrong as those who believe my complete identity is based on my Ohio residency. Being blind, or having any disability, serves as a partial description of who we are as people. Thus, I see no harm in such adjectives. However, changing the structure of the sentence only does precisely that… it changes the ordering of the words. I am still represented by the noun, girl, described by the adjective, blind. No amount of switching around the elements of the sentence will ever produce any other meaning for me, and I think that’s okay. I do not permit the structure of a sentence to define me because whether I’m said to be the blind girl or the girl who is blind, I’m still the same person. I think people-first language misses the point that it concretely alters grammar, but leaves the interpreting to the audience. Yes, it once was an innovative idea to protect the dignity of disabled folks, I do not deny that. Yet, riding horses, while once the fastest mode of transportation, has been widely replaced. Similarly, I think grammar is no longer the necessary solution.
That leads me to my priorities. Undoubtedly, as somebody who finds no use for people-first language, it’s easy for me to say that I would much rather work to actually expand accessibility than idly talk about how to refer to the disability community. Instead of doing grammatical gymnastics to make labels sound pretty or appropriate, I’d rather expend energy and time to make the concrete changes that allow greater participation in society. I would gladly hear somebody say, “We have put up Braille signage for blind people”, which shows things actually being done, over, “I talked to a girl who happened to be blind today.” The latter is said to sound more politically correct, but is it really? As for me, I think having a ram is a whole lot more “politically correct” than arguing over the appropriate way to term the person using the ramp. I don’t mean to suggest those who promote people-first language do not also want concrete action, I think they do. However, I think, knowing we have limited resources and energy, instituting people-first language is not worth the time and argument. There are just so many changes that need to be addressed, I can’t justify the effort.
The reason we “need” people-first language is because we have yet to achieve people-always beliefs. People-first might make some grammatical changes, but I don’t think it fixes the problem. You are more than the words chosen to describe you. Just because the order of these words is changed does not mean the beliefs behind them have likewise been transformed. I hope not to change people’s sentence structures about disabled people, but raise their expectations and value for disabled people. Grammar can only go so far, and this is one task it can’t achieve.