Language first, people! (Part I) (originally published 2/12/09)

I’m a big believer in the power of language.

My interest in how language affects our lives started when I read Phillip Tompkins’ “Apollo, Challenger, Columbia: The Decline of the Space Program.”

In it, Tompkins discusses the ways language played into the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. The cause of that tragedy was a piece of “insulating foam” that fell off of the rocket tank during liftoff and damaged the heat-shielding tile on the wing of the shuttle.

You can read the log at NASA’s website of what went on that morning and see for yourself that at T+81.9 seconds, the foam strikes the shuttle. On January 23rd, NASA decides that the damage from that foam is “absolutely no concern” for reentry.

When I think of the term “insulating foam,” it conjures images of pink insulation, styrofoam packaging and Nerf footballs. Surely none of those things would hurt a space shuttle, right?

Au contraire!
NASA’s foam “goes on like shaving cream, soft and gooey. But after it cures…turns hard as brick.” And a piece of that “foam” falling off a rocket going 25,000 mph is definitely going to do some damage.

Tompkins says language gives us a “preunderstanding,” which in this case, leads to a misunderstanding of the reality of the situation. Language trains our brains to understand what things are – giving us a “mental shortcut,” if you will.

So how does all of this relate to people living with disabilities? Well, for a long time now, we have been advocating for the universal usage of “People First Language.” People First Language is used to make sure that the person is considered and spoken about before the disability. We don’t say “an autistic child,” but rather “a child with autism.” We no longer refer to “the disabled” or “the handicapped.” They are “people with disabilities.” It’s a way of training our brains to consider the fact that this person, who happens to have a disability, is a person first and foremost. He/she has feelings and interests and gifts to offer.

I know a TON of people who would say “this is all politically correct nonsense! What does it matter?” As you’ll see (I hope!) in the next two parts in this series, language does matter. You’ll see People First Language used in this blog. (If you catch me not using it or have some newer ideas around this, let me know in the comments section!)

We can all keep moving forward on this. In fact, this year, I first heard David Pitonyak (I’ll dedicate a blog post to him later!) use the term “people experiencing disabilities.” I thought that sounded great the first time I heard it. It made me think “Wow. What would it be like to experience a disability?” It’s the closest I’ve been able to come to truly imagining myself in the shoes of someone with Down syndrome or autism.

I have been using the term “people living with disabilities” as well, though it doesn’t feel as powerful as “experiencing” to me.

I proposed using the term “People livingwith/experiencing disabilities” to a group of colleagues once at a meeting last year. These people have all adopted People First Language in their everyday conversations, but there was hesitancy to my suggestion. Many of them told me that “we’re just reinventing the wheel” and that “we’ve already done this 15 years ago.” The consensus in the room was that “people with disabilities” is sufficient. I can see the point. I don’t think “people with disabilities” is wrong, it’s just that I think there’s room for tweaking.

It’s important to me, though, so I still try to use those terms myself. I believe we can always improve and move forward, especially in our understanding of how language impacts the world around us.

Let me know what you think…and stay tuned for Part II, where we’ll dive into the “R” word!


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