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February 01, 1999  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

Language should focus on abilities, not disabilities


How we speak to and about the students with disabilities who ride school buses can influence their perception of themselves and others' perceptions of them. The following description of People First Language comes from the PEAK Parent Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. For more information on their programs, call (719) 531-9400 or (719) 531-9403 (TDD). Or, you can write to the organization: PEAK Parent Center Inc., 6055 Lehman Drive, #101, Colorado Springs, CO 80918. The organization also has a Website ( Language shapes and reinforces our attitudes toward others. The words many of us use to describe individuals with disabilities must improve before these citizens are viewed as equal members of our society.

The disability is secondary
Disability labels focus on what the individual cannot do rather than the person's abilities. People First Language looks at the individual before the disability. A disability is something that an individual has, not what an individual is. Here are some examples of People First Language:

  • Adam is a young boy with cerebral palsy (CP).
  • Jason is a 13-year-old with a learning disability.
  • Alex is a kindergartner and has autism.
  • A family has a son with Down syndrome.
  • Lacy uses a wheelchair.

    Notice how much more positive People First Language sounds than a CP boy, a learning disabled teen, an autistic kindergartner, a Down's son or wheelchair-bound girl? As our language changes, perceptions and attitudes also change. People First Language helps in the movement toward the acceptance, respect and inclusion of individuals with disabilities. If you do not know what to say, allow the person who has the disability to help put you at ease. Just ask what term makes them feel comfortable. Respect their language. Remember, they are the experts. Consider the following introduction of a friend who does not have a disability. "This is my good friend Molly Stone. She grew up in Maine and has always loved art. Now she works as a landscape painter. She also is taking an Italian cooking class." Molly sounds like an interesting person. We are now able to talk about Maine, painting or Italian food. Molly's introduction was positive. It did not say what she cannot do, nor does it include negative information that certainly would not be the way to describe a friend. Why should the introduction of a friend who just happens to have a disability be any different? How would it sound if we described Kelly like this? "Her name is Kelly. She is retarded. She can talk though. And, she is an epileptic, too." What a show stopper. How can anyone build a conversation based on this? No one wants to be identified by something they cannot do nor control. All individuals are made up of several characteristics. An individual's disability is just one part of him or her. People First Language takes the focus off the disability and places it back on the individual. All individuals are made up of several characteristics. An individual's disability is just one part of him or her.

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