Sunday, July 25, 2010

You First
The worlds of special education and medicine are an alphabet soup of labels.
Most of us are familiar with ADD / ADHD.
You’ve likely heard of MS, and maybe CP.
How about ASD, ALS and PDD?
And we all hope we never get “the big C”!
Labels tell us what a person’s needs are, so we can meet those needs better.
When I taught a little boy who has autism, I talked to him differently than I talk to my youngest niece (aka The Princess), who has cerebral palsy.
My friend’s son, who’s being treated for leukemia, receives different medication than my oldest nephew (aka The Handsome One), who has diabetes.
But, like every good thing, labels pose a challenge.
The challenge is to use the label to describe the need... not to define the person.
I wince when I hear someone referred to as a “special needs child”.
     Or “autistic boy”.
          Or “Down syndrome man”.
               Or, in the school setting, “IPP kid”.
It’s a good thing I’ve never heard someone call my niece “the wheelchair girl”,
     but I bet she’s heard it.
My niece,
     my nephew,
          my friend’s son,
               the man who lives next door to you...
is a person first...
     a complete and valuable person...
          made in the image of God
             and loved by Him.
His life, her life,
     has been impacted by some kind of diagnosis,
        but he or she is not defined by it.
At least, I pray he or she isn't!
So let’s talk in a way that expresses our belief in every person’s value.
An easy way to do that is to choose person-first language.
     It’s not hard to figure out.
     We just put the person first.
We don’t say “special needs child”.
     We say “child... with special needs”.
Not Down syndrome man.
     Man...who has Down syndrome.
Not the disabled.
     People ... who have disabilities.
Not autistic boy.
     Boy ...who’s been diagnosed with autism.
Not wheelchair girl.
     Girl... who uses a wheelchair.
While we’re at it, person-first language applies to other realms, too.
Please, please... not “the poor”.
     People who are poor.
Not “the elderly”.
     People who are elderly.
Not “the homeless”.
     People who are homeless.
Maybe you think I’m making too much fuss about simple little words.
     After all, we know what we mean, right?
But the truth is, words matter.
Words influence thoughts,
     the thoughts of both the speaker and the hearer.
          Thoughts become attitudes,
               and attitudes become actions.
So let’s start the whole thing right.
Let’s use words that show we think of the person first.


  1. THANK YOU for putting this into words, and it reinforces my beliefs (as you already know).

    Everyone walking the planet needs to read this!

    Also your statement at the end is so true:
    "Words influence thoughts, the thoughts of both the speaker and the hearer. Thoughts become attitudes,
    and attitudes become actions."

  2. I'm glad there are at least two of us who feel this way about person first language. Let's start a revolution... :)