Friday, September 20, 2013

Advocacy 101: People First Language

The first post in the Advocacy 101 series was about the history of disabilities and definition of advocacy.  Now that you know about the past, it's time to touch on the future, with something you can start doing immediately!  People First Language (PFL) is a fairly new aspect to advocacy.  They start out as words; tiny little words that can crush a spirit or draw a flood of tears.  People First Language is a simple, yet necessary step towards removing the negative stereotypes that typically follow an individual with a disability.  This is important as an advocate, because your voice may become significantly more powerful with a simple change of wording.

How many of you have heard a stranger, or even someone you know, throw around the word "retarded"?  Honestly, it makes me cringe, and has been turned into a heavily used slang term that describes someone or their actions as stupid or idiotic.  These people have no idea how inappropriate and hurtful a simple word can be.  Retarded, autistic, handicapped, crippled, midget, and mentally ill.  These are all LABELS that define the person.  It might seem like a small, insignificant detail, but these words instantly label that individual and none focus on the strengths of that person.  They continue to perpetuate negative stereotypes and further separate those within the disability community.  "People-First Language is an objective way of acknowledging, communicating, and reporting on disabilities. It eliminates generalizations and stereotypes, by focusing on the person rather than the disability. ("

Kathie Snow (Disability is Natural) is the leading advocate for People First Language.  I had the pleasure of hearing her speak at a Partners in Policymaking class last year.  Here, she clarifies the importance of PFL:
People First Language (PFL) represents more respectful, accurate ways of communicating. People with disabilities are not their diagnoses or disabilities; they are people, first.
PFL is not about "political correctness," it's about good manners and The Golden Rule. "Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can never hurt you," is a very harmful myth. Words do matter! They can raise or lower expectations; hurt or help; crush hopes or create dreams; and so much more.
All too often, the focus is on a person's medical condition.  Would you call a person who has cancer, cancerous?  Bill is cancerous.  No.  Bill has cancer.  Would you want someone to refer to you by your skin condition or if you can't see without glasses and nothing else?  Aren't you more than just your skin condition or visual acuity?  My son, Brady, has autism.  He is not autistic.  He should not be solely labeled because of his diagnoses and it does not define him as a person.  The medical conditions are not the defining characteristic of who we are as human beings.
The next step is something that you can start doing right away!  By modeling People First Language, you are helping change the acceptable words for this generation and those who follow.  Remember back in history to the time where many different stereotypes and derogatory words were spoken about a particular race or ethnicity.  Our community members have taught us what words were not acceptable to use.  The same goes for those in our disability communities.  We need to advocate for them, and we can do so by simply using words that are respectful and focus on the individual first. 

As mentioned before, Kathie Snow has a plethora of knowledge regarding advocacy and PFL.  Her website, Disability is Natural, is a FANTASTIC resource for PFL and advocacy!!  She has so many great resources, I'm going to just list them below.  Please take the time to visit each link when you have the time.  If you're on your phone and can't open the link, come back and visit when you are able.  This is a very important message for us to learn!  All of these can be found on
Kathie Snow Radio Interview -  The importance of PFL and advocacy

Examples of People First Language

Same and Different: Respect For All

These are just a few wonderful resources from Kathie Snow.  I will be referring back to her site often within the Advocacy 101 series, as she is an amazing advocate and an even more amazing mom!
 Here is a quick sample of the Examples of People First Language:

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All of us have spoken the wrong word before and we might accidentally say it in the future.  There is no need to berate yourself. Just learn from those errors and correct them with the appropriate word or phrase.  If a family member or friend says the non-preferred wording, politely mention that you've just learned about People First Language and let them know what the preferred wording is.  The quickest way to get past those negative stereotypes and generalizations is put the PERSON FIRST.  This is an evolving list, as new words are being added frequently. 
After learning about People First Language in my Partners in Policymaking class, not all of the self-advocates were 100% on board with PFL.  "Not all people with disabilities agree on which language or terminology is preferred like any other large, yet identifiable group of people. Individuals will vary as to how they refer to themselves and how they would like you to refer to them. (".  Here are two different views on People First Language.  View 1 --- & --- View 2   Please decide for yourself where you stand.  If nothing else, it will make you more aware of the words that you use in the future.

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Thank you, Kathie Snow, for allowing the use of your materials and providing such a wonderful foundation for advocates and self-advocates!! 

Leslie M. has a Bachelor's Degree in Criminal Justice (Forensics) with a minor in Psychology.  She is also 2012 graduate of Partners in Policymaking (PIP) Oregon.  She has a young son who experiences a disability and tries to be the best advocate on the planet for him.  PIP was an intense education course that helped provide many different areas of focus for the students and self-advocates, alike.  We all walked into class the first day as strangers with something in common. We left as family with a united vision!

All information listed in this series, unless otherwise specified, was referenced with information provided by the Oregon Council on Developmental Disabilities (OCDD) Partners in Policymaking (PIP) program.

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