- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
A few weeks ago I was sitting in my living room, wrapping presents and listening to the local news. A story came on that caught my attention, about a Fairfax County special-needs student left at a bus stop alone. As I listened to the story, I couldn’t help but hear the repetition of special needs and notice how it was placed before every describing characteristic of the subject: special-needs boy, special-needs student, special-needs kindergartner.
Now, you may be reading this and thinking to yourself, OK, so what? There is a linguistic philosophy called person-first language which shifts focus from defining people by what they have and instead, places emphasis on who they are. I had a professor this past semester who introduced me to this philosophy; she opened my eyes to the detriments that just a simple order of words can have on the way in which we think about people who have disabilities.
In our society, language is power; words hold a deeper significance than most of us realize. When we speak in a manner which lists a disability or condition before the actual subject, we are placing an unconscious importance over the actual character of a person and consequently defining them by something that is quite irrelevant to their disposition. This simple order of words can devalue a person’s capabilities, altering the way in which their potential is viewed by society.
Person-first language is not a new phenomenon, yet the vast majority of Americans have never heard of it. Why is that? I’ve found that the answer lies in the very story I mentioned: the media. After seeing this story, I felt compelled to write into this news station and introduce them to this philosophy. Until our media begins to recognize the importance of person-first language, the stigma that surrounds disabilities will remain the same. It is my goal in 2013 to make person-first language a standard that I speak and write by; I firmly believe that in doing this, we can begin to destigmatize people who have disabilities and other conditions. I voiced my concern with the manner in which this station conveyed frustration with how this specific student was treated; in doing so, I made sure to recognize and commend them for highlighting the issue of student safety. Hopefully, my message will be well received and we will start to see a change.
I challenge all of you to add supporting person-first language to your list of resolutions for the new year. When you hear friends, family, news reporters and even strangers placing emphasis on disabilities and conditions rather than the spirit of an individual, find a polite way to introduce them to the person-first philosophy.
Karen P. Wathen, California