Mark Twain once observed, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and lightning bug.” In the spirit of Mark Twain, on July 1, 2005, Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski signed a bill into law that requires state bills, laws, and regulations to adopt people first language in new documents, specifically forbidding language that does not put the person before the disability. Since then, other states have enacted their own people first language laws. But what is “people first” language?
Historically, society viewed people with mental or physical impairments as broken or afflicted; and language used to describe people with developmental disabilities reflected that view. By changing the way that people are described, the people first language movement seeks to change how society views people with disabilities and foster more positive attitudes. (As background, the federal Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act defines a “developmental disability” as a severe chronic disability that is attributable to a mental or physical impairment or combination thereof, manifested before the individual attains age 22 and likely to continue indefinitely—which results in substantial functional limitations in three or more of the following areas of major life activity: self care; receptive and expressive language; learning; mobility; self-direction; capacity for individual living; and economic self-sufficiency.)
In the developmental disability context, people first language is language that promotes understanding, respect, dignity, and a positive view of people with disabilities. People first language puts the “person” first in thought and word—and emphasizes abilities, not limitations. For example, in Oregon administrative rules and statutes the phrase “individuals with disabilities” has replaced phrases such as “disabled person” or “special needs child.” This puts the person before any disability and describes what the person has … not who the person is.
So why use people first language? First of all, people with disabilities are ordinary people who—like everyone else—have individual abilities, interests, goals, and needs. Their contributions enrich our communities and society, and they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Also, old descriptions perpetuate negative stereotypes and generate attitudinal barriers. So, as part of our efforts to eliminate discrimination of all types, we should strive to use language that demonstrates respect for all people.
That is all for now …