Tuesday, January 1, 2013

New Year, New You

"Person-First Langauge" - An easy addition to your list of New Year's Resolutions

A few weeks ago I was sitting in my living room, wrapping presents and listening to the local news. A story came on that caught my attention, "Fairfax Special Needs Student Left at Bus Stop Alone." Now, to most people this headline and subsequent report would have been just another story but for me, it was something more. As I listened to the story, I  couldn't help but hear the repetition of "special needs" and notice how it was placed before every describing characteristic of the subject: "special needs boy," "special needs student," "special needs kindergartener."

Now, you may be reading this and thinking to yourself, "okay, so what?..." 

There is a linguistic philosophy called "person-first language"which shifts focus from defining people by what they "have" and instead, places emphasis on who they "are." I had a very special professor this past semester who introduced me to this philosophy; she opened my eyes to the detriments that just a simple order of words can have on the way in which we think about people who have disabilities. 

In our society, language is power; words hold a deeper significance than most of us realize. When we speak in manner which lists a disability or condition before the actual subject, we are placing an unconscious importance over the actual character of a person and consequently defining them by something that is quite irrelevant to their disposition. This simple order of words can devalue a person's capabilities, altering the way in which their potential is viewed by society. 

"Person-first language" is not a new phenomena yet the vast majority of Americans have never heard of it. Why is that? I've spent a lot time trying to answer this question and I found that the answer lies in the very story I mentioned at the beginning of this post: the media. After seeing this story, I felt compelled to write into this news station and introduce them to this philosophy. Until our media begins to recognize the importance of "person-first language," the stigma that surrounds disabilities will remain the same. 

It is my goal in 2013 to make "person-first language" a standard that I speak and write by; I firmly believe that in doing this, we can begin to de-stigmatize people who have disabilities and other various conditions. 

I wrote into the station that broadcasted this story and voiced my concern with the manner in which they conveyed their frustration with how this specific student was treated; in doing so, I made sure to recognize and commend them for highlighting the issue of student safety. Hopefully, my message will be well-received and we will start to see a change in local media. 

I challenge all of you to add supporting "person-first language" to your list of New Year's Resolutions. When you hear friends, family, news reporters and even strangers, placing emphasis on disabilities and conditions rather than the spirit of an individual, find a polite way to introduce them to the "person-first" philosophy. 

Best Wishes and Happy New Year!

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