Using Person-First Language to Communicate With and About People with Special Needs

Senior Law News | Oct 24, 2016 | Hook Law Center

About 54 million Americans, or 1 in every 5 people, report having a disability. Most Americans will experience a disability at some point, and for many, the disability will occur very suddenly and unexpectedly.  It could happen to anyone, at any time.  As special needs attorneys, we aim to give individuals with disabilities a voice, comprehensive planning, and access to benefits to which they are entitled.  We also strive to raise awareness and encourage understanding.

Individuals with disabilities have historically been marginalized and treated as if their disabilities defined them. Gone are the days that calling someone an “invalid,” “handicapped,” or “retarded” is acceptable.  In its place, we use person-first language to appropriately and respectfully describe and speak about individuals with disabilities.

Instead of referring to a person with disability, “person-first language” (also called “people-first language”) emphasizes the person first, not the disability.   It describes what a person has, but not who a person is.  When describing someone who has a disability, refer to him as “a person with ________,” or “a person who has __________________.”

For example:

Say This:Not This:
Person who is deafDeaf person
Person who uses a wheelchairWheelchair-bound/ handicapped
Person with an intellectual disabilityRetarded
Person with epilepsyEpileptic
Person with autismAutistic
Person with a learning disabilityLearning disabled
Student who receives special education servicesSpecial ed student

This is not political correctness; it is a demonstration of respect. Why does it matter?  Because the words we use affect how people see themselves and others, contribute to social norms, and ultimately influence changes in the law.  Using antiquated terminology that defines a person in terms of his disability sends the message that you have an underlying prejudice or see them as nothing more than their disability.  It’s demeaning and belittling.  Using person-first language, however, sends the message that the person is of value and worthy of respect, and gives the person an opportunity to define himself using his talents, characteristics, and other abilities.

It has been said that the population with disabilities is the only minority group that anyone can join at any time, whether at birth, as the result of an accident or illness, or simply as a part of growing older. If it were to suddenly happen to you, how would you want to be described?

Ask Kit Kat – Nurse Kitty

Hook Law Center:  Kit Kat, what can you tell us about the cat who saved his owner from death?

Kit Kat:  Well, this is an unusual story. Glen Schallman adopted a cat whom he named Blake. Turned out it was a smart move! Blake has repeatedly saved Glen’s life by biting Glen’s toes or jumping on him when he senses danger. Glen has some rare medical conditions which mostly affect his brain. Two are polymicrogyria and unilateral schizencephaly. In addition, he has a brain tumor known as hypothalamic hamartoma. The latter causes seizures which are very frequent, almost daily. However, thanks to Blake, Glen is known as oldest living person with this combination of conditions. Without any training, Blake seems to sense when a seizure is about to happen, and he bites Glen’s toes or rouses him, so that Glen can move to a safe place before it happens. Once, Glen was having a seizure in the middle of the night. Blake bit his toes and woke him up before the seizure went on too long. In another, when Glen’s hands began to tremor, Blake jumped in Glen’s lap, stroked his arms and purred and purred until the tremors stopped. This helped to calm Glen, and help him recover more quickly than he otherwise might have done.

Usually it is dogs who are used as therapy companions, but in this case, a cat has fulfilled that role extremely capably. It appears that both our canine cousins and we felines have potential in feeling and perceiving that you humans are only beginning to understand. (Sheeka Sanahori, “Nurse Kitty! Cat bites owner’s toes, saves him from deadly seizure,” USA Today, (Humankind section), Oct.6, 2016)

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