People First Language by Professor Scott Sparks

There are many subtle ways that the empowerment of young women can be challenged.  How others speak about them using language that may be condescending is one example.  In this blog post, I would like to talk about a related movement, using people first language when speaking about people with disabilities.  How we speak of and to people with disabilities is often based in sympathy. We feel that a life changing disability is something to feel sorry about.  While this is a natural human response to perceived misfortune, it overlooks the human dignity of overcoming the limits of disability and becoming as independent as possible.  Of course, there are many young women who have disabilities but the disability community is not generally gender driven. The issue here is putting more focus on a person’s disability by referring to it before referring to the person who has the disability.   When we refer to someone as a disabled person, we see their disability first and the person behind it second. That requires a person with a disability to develop even more skills just to be seen as competent. Seeing the disability first creates other barriers as well such as taking away a person’s independence.  If someone in a wheelchair looks pitiful enough, others will gladly push them without really thinking that you are making the person in the wheelchair more dependent on others. This must be minimized, there are times when such intervention is appropriate but that should be the exception. Use of non-people first language can also create a self-fulfilling prophecy for the person with the disability.  If you are constantly exposed to non-people first language, you may begin to see yourself as more disabled than you actually are. The media is full of reporters, producers, etc. who generally do not use people first language and couch there reports of disability in sympathetic tones. It’s not that sympathy is a bad thing generally, it does not provide the person with constructive support. When a person is constantly referred to in a specific way, they tend to behave in that way.   Becoming an independent adult is the primary focus for people with disabilities. Their disabilities present a number of barriers that are associated with living in communities. Physical barriers are for the most part, well known, but people first language is about psychological barriers. We should all expect others to refer to us in respectful ways. Another issue in people first language is the stereotyping of persons who have disabilities. People with disabilities are as diverse as any other group in a society.  When we see disability from a global perspective, we tend to define it in very narrow ways. People with disabilities are not a homogeneous group, each one is an individual with their own strengths and challenges. With school age children this is recognized by individualizing their education through the Individualized Education Programs (IEP) that are developed for each child. When we see people with disabilities as people first, we see the wonderful diversity that is within each person. By seeing them as a disabled person, we take away that diverse element.  The process of changing common language is very long. People first language has been demanded by disability communities for decades and has yet to reach fruition. Through this change, we will see greater empowerment, and thus independence, on the part of persons with disabilities. This same process would work for young women who are seeking empowerment, demand that others talk about you with respect.

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Scott Sparks, Ph.D


Professor Scott Sparks holds the B.A. in Special Education from the University of South Florida and the M.A. in Special Education from the University of South Florida. He earned the Ph.D. in Special Education from the University of Florida. Professor Sparks currently teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in special education technology, as well as courses in introduction to special education and supervises the graduate practica in special education. Professor Sparks Is a site visitor with the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) and makes two visits a year.

Most Recent Publications:

Sparks, S.S., & Alodail, A. (2014).  Educating Native American learners with exceptionalities.  In Obiakor, F.E., & Rotatori, A.F. (Eds). Multicultural education for learners with special needs in the twenty first century (pp. 105-123). Charlotte:Information Age Publishing.


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