I am going to assume that most of you probably know someone or know of someone who has a disability. Whether it’s a physical, developmental, or mental disability, we’ve heard of the struggles that people with disabilities go through, and mostly, it’s because of some inspirational thing that they’ve done. Or maybe there was someone at your school who you saw eating at the table with all the “special” kids. The point is, we know the definition of a disability. Google defines a disability as “a physical or mental condition that limits a person's movements, senses, or activities.” But I do not think we know what it actually means for an individual to have a disability.
To have a disability means that you may communicate in a different way from everyone else. To have a disability does not mean that what you have to say should be any less valued than what others have to say. Having a disability means that you may think differently than the 20 other people in your class. Having a disability does not mean that the way you think and your way of problem solving is the “wrong way” or that you are “being stupid.” To have a disability is really the exact opposite of the connotations we put on that word. What it means to have a disability is to have far more abilities than the world could ever label you as having. It means that you break the mold that society labels as the lie called “normal” which they try to force on everyone.
These are things that seem to be a stigma in our culture. We treat those who have disabilities as if the standards that we hold for them should be lower than those without disabilities. But really, people with and without disabilities are more alike than different. We’re all human beings. We all have abilities. We all want to have connections with our own group of friends and family. We all want to be supported. We don’t want to be limited by the standards people put on us based on face-value. We want people to believe in us. We want people to acknowledge our existence. And we don’t want to be written off as failures just because our way of doing things is different from the norm.
As a culture, we’ve changed what it means to be different into having a bad connotation. You like a different sports team? Well, I guess we can’t be friends anymore. What?! You’re voting for so-and-so?! I’m deleting you from my friends list on Facebook! You have different beliefs and values than me? I guess I am obligated to hate you and disagree with every single thing you say. When I say it like this, it sounds kind of weird and quite frankly, entirely ridiculous. But no matter if it’s what we believe or what we think we know about a person, we push that on others. You could almost consider it as the cultural norm of pontificating (although, not everyone is pompous and self-righteous about what they believe).
In my training for working with Wise (an organization that works with job coaches and supported employees), I heard so many sad stories of people who have disabilities not getting the support they needed just because the individual they were seeking help from assumed they knew all about the individual’s abilities, therefore setting the bar too low. Quite frankly, this makes me angry and ashamed because I know I’ve done this before and that it’s a common occurrence in the world today. Overall, it’s something that we need to change.
From my training, I learned a new term for a more positive way of thought and speech. It’s called “Person First Language” and it means exactly what it looks like. You put the person first in how you think and speak of them. You focus on their abilities rather than on how they may be limited. And I believe that this is something that we need to collectively do as a culture. I’ve mentioned this before in another article ("Including the Excluded”) but it’s something that I believe strongly in. It’s the fact that we put too much weight on what an individual (with or without a disability) cannot do that we end up disabling their abilities.
I believe that if we make this small change in the way we think, we’ll discover so much more about the people we interact with on a day to day basis. No one wants to be defined as something they feel they aren’t good at. So don’t do it. We should not be defined and identified by the failures we may have. Therefore, it’s time to change your thinking. It’s time to start thinking and speaking in Person First Language, both for yourself and for everyone else you meet.