It seems as though conversations about language are everywhere these days. As a society, we are arguably more aware of and concerned with the ways in which what we say is shaped by how we say it. As it relates to underserved populations such as those with disabilities, however, the real questions for me are who gets to decide the rightness or wrongness of the language we use and how can we start conversations around where we disagree?
While one person’s experiences can’t speak for everyone; with hope, mine can provide readers with a few practical tips about how to have productive conversations about language preferences in their own lives. As a self-advocate, I’ve had many different experiences with language used to describe disability.
I prefer identity-first words such as "disabled" versus the more widely accepted person-first language that many are used to (e.g. “person with a disability”). This preference has, at times, caused confusion among some friends as well as professional colleagues. There have also been times when others continue to disrespect my identity-first preference in an effort to prove that they see me as more than my disability.
But there’s an upside to this tension – it’s created room for many conversations about the way that the world traditionally views disability, the impacts of those views, and why I prefer what I do. When done well, these conversations can promote understanding for all involved. The following are a few things I have learned to keep in mind when approaching these conversations:
When we don’t know a person’s preference, standards are helpful: Though personal preference should be honored when we know it, we often don’t depending on the context. Also, in many contexts, such as writing news or blog articles, it’s not always possible to take both the individual preferences of writer and reader into account. That is where standards like person-first language can be helpful in providing a commonly acceptable way of referencing disability.
Preference is personal: Neither person-first or identity-first language is universally loved or hated by self-advocates. Advocate for your own preference, but never someone else’s. If as members of the disability community we want outsiders to respect our views, we have to respect others’ too.
Tell others what you like and why: Don’t assume others know your preference. Whether it’s the language used around disability, or something else, self-advocacy depends on speaking up for yourself and your preferences! A clever hack for making your preferences known with a new acquaintance is to find a way to insert disability language into your conversation. For example, a great way to do this is to use humor. While not always appropriate, jokes tend to help put people at ease in what might be an uncomfortable conversation.
Start conversations on a positive note: Sometimes it’s tempting to get defensive when we don’t like something. Don’t. Realize that many people don’t have experience with disability. And even those that do don’t have your experience. Most people are doing the best they can with what they know. It is a good practice to start a conversation by finding something that you do have in common, even focusing on non-disability topics and simple common interests at first (such as music, TV, etc.), can lead to mutual understanding, and allow you to eventually turn the topic to deeper preferences.
Your own preferences may change over time: There was a time when being called disabled would have been offensive to me. That’s changed. Leave room for your own experience of disability and the language surrounding it to change too.
Though this list is far from extensive, hopefully it provides a starting place for your own conversations around language and the way we as humans use it. Do you feel strongly about how others talk about disability? Tell us about it in the Facebook comments for this story.