All my life, I have heard that people who have disabilities are limited. Whether or not it was limitations physically, or to what jobs they could or could not do, it has always seemed that there has been a certain discomfort around those who have disabilities. What we forget to remember, however, is how to differentiate the person from the disability.
Too often, I hear “the disabled” or “the handicapped,” when in reality, a person who has physical or mental disabilities is simply just that; a person.
I know what you’re thinking, who cares how I refer to a person who uses a wheelchair? What does language have to do with it? Quite to the contrary, language actually has a lot to do with it. Language is how we shape our beliefs, thoughts, and ideas. The words we choose to use are powerful, and once we say them, there’s no taking them back.
So, it’s important that we are not only mindful of the words that we use, but that we are also educated on the meanings behind them and the appropriate manners to which we should use them in.
This concept, also referred to as Person First Language, was brought to my attention when I took a class about how to program events towards diverse populations, which include people who have disabilities. By arranging our words in this manner, we allow not only others but also ourselves to see a person with disabilities as more similar than different.
That being said, disabilities do not discriminate. In fact, people with disabilities make up not only the largest but also the most inclusive and diverse minority group. They can affect all people despite their race, age, socioeconomic status, gender, or religion. On the other hand, we need to make sure we are referring to those without disabilities correctly as well. A child without disabilities is not “normal”, that creates the divide between what is normal and what isn’t by society’s standards.
Having a disability is not a problem, and should not be seen as an inconvenience. A disability is a need and should be seen as such. Some people need to wear glasses when they read, others need a wheelchair in order to get around.
Commonly in schools and other institutions, people who have disabilities, both cognitive and physical, are segregated off from the rest of the group. While some might argue that this is the best option, I actually disagree. By doing this, we are not only doing them a disservice but ourselves as well.
People with disabilities are not monsters, they are not weird; they are people who we can learn from. By alienating them, not only are we reinforcing the idea that they are different than the rest of us, but we ourselves believe that being around people with disabilities is something that should be an uncomfortable experience, and that’s not the case at all.
Like I previously stated, disabilities can affect anyone. Approximately one in five people in the U.S. have a disability. These people are not separate from us; they are our parents, siblings, teachers, friends, co-workers and classmates. They are people just like us.
So please, next time you find yourself in a discussion with or about someone who has a disability, be empathetic, kind, and use Person First Language.