There is a movement gaining steam among advocates for the disabled to spread awareness of so-called “people-first language,” that is, usage that puts a little distance between an individual and his or her physical or intellectual challenges.
The goal is to train the government, the media, and the medical professions to learn to talk about “kids with cerebral palsy” or “people with autism” rather than “cerebral palsy kids” or “autistic people.” Doctors have been quick to pick up on this; the media less so. And the vast majority of states have adopted people-first language in their statutes and official communications.
At first glance, it might seem like a little thing—just one more politically-correct adjustment to the way we talk, brought to you by the chronically aggrieved, never-satisfied word police.
But to those who love someone with a developmental or physical disability it really is a question of what comes first, the person or the disability. Our mental, physical, and emotional challenges aside, we are all unique individuals, and those raising awareness about people-first language are motivated by a genuine desire to emphasize our common humanity.
My daughter Magdalena has Down syndrome, and while I generally support people-first language, I am not a crusader for it. I’d rather people didn’t refer to Magdalena as a “Down syndrome girl,” but I understand that, especially for older folks, habits of speech can be hard to break. For instance, one of our favorite doctors often refers to “Down’s kids” when explaining a possible complication or a likely outcome. He’ll say, “With Down’s kids you have to watch out for X or Y.” I cringe a little when he says it, but it doesn’t bother me that much, in part because he treats Magdalena with the same respect he affords my other children.
It is a sad fact that his attitude is not as common as it should be in the medical community. I put our doctor in the rare category of those who see and appreciate Magdalena’s humanity. He laughs at her jokes. He is at ease around my daughter despite her totally inability to sit still and answer his questions. He makes my wife and me feel comfortable and understood. So, I cut him some slack on the language front.
However, there are many parents, some of whom I know personally, who take sincere umbrage at references to “handicapped kids” or “autistic people.” They view this as an assault on the dignity of their loved ones. These parents, I suspect, would not let my doctor’s old-fashioned lingo slide. They link people-first language to the ongoing and occasionally contentious political battles for educational inclusion and full civil rights for the disabled. They recognize the power of language to shape perceptions and are intent on playing as active a role as possible in molding the world their children will live in.
I am ambivalent. Some do use language to degrade and humiliate people with disabilities. There are terms—truly ugly words—that I think should be drummed out of our vocabularies. If my favorite doctor were to call Magdalena “retarded,” for instance, we’d likely have an unpleasant conversation. But I’ve met many doctors who, while using perfectly precise people-first language, seem more concerned with covering their behinds than about connecting with my daughter and forming a bond with my family.
Believe it or not, there are doctors I’ve met who make no secret of their belief that giving birth to a child with a “preventable” condition such as Down syndrome is irresponsible. I don’t much care if a doctor uses people-first language if his body language says he wants me and my child out of the room.
This goes double for the media. Why would I care if the New York Times uses people-first language when its editorial pages consistently—brazenly—ratify the killing of people like my daughter for no other reason than that some disabilities can be detected prenatally? Does it really matter if MSNBC uses people-first language in a feel-good story about a child model with Down syndrome when that network’s on-air talent routinely characterizes abortion at any stage of pregnancy and for any reason as a fundamental and inviolable right? I don’t think it does.
Women who receive prenatal diagnoses of Down syndrome and other genetic abnormalities opt for abortion at astronomical rates. What good will people-first language do when Down syndrome has been functionally eliminated from the gene pool? What good will people-first language do when a genetic link to autism is established and a prenatal test is developed to identify it?
My ambivalence about people-first language stems from my strong feeling that its advocates have their priorities out of whack. Their intentions may be good, but fighting over words is no substitute for ensuring the dignity of every human life. It is a noble effort, but not much more than a skirmish in the larger battle.
Until we can guarantee that people like Magdalena are first allowed the right to be born, I will find it hard to get riled up about people-first language.
Matthew Hennessey is a writer and editor who lives in New Canaan, Connecticut. You can follow him on Twitter @MattHennessey.