I first heard about person first language when I was in graduate school. The concept was familiar to me long before that. The idea that it was much more respectful to refer to “the woman who was blind” rather than “the blind woman” just made sense in my mind. Other people with disabilities disagree with me on this point and many others and I think that is okay. I will always support any person with a disability doing whatever works for them. But I never want to be “the wheelchair girl” as I have been referred to on occasion. The reasoning behind person-first language is something I have explored on this blog several times before. That people are infinitely more than their disabilities and whatever issue they may be affected by is simply a characteristic of who they happen to be as a person. And that they are a person before they are a disability.
Earlier today I heard of the death of Stephen Hawking, the amazing physicist who initiated major advances in the field of science. Nobody would argue that he had a brilliant mind. Always studying and questioning theories, always discovering new things. A distinguished professor at Cambridge, he was diagnosed with ALS at the age of 22 and stunned the medical community by living with it for the better part of the next 40 years. But I expect he will be more remembered for his two bestsellers and his contributions as a cosmologist than anything else.
Itzhak Perlman is a world-renowned violinist. He was diagnosed with polio at the age of four. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal about three years ago, (the quotes from the article are paraphrased here) he talks about, in the beginning, people didn’t listen to his music. Instead, they only focused on his disability and wondered things like if he could travel and if touring might be too much for him. As people started recognizing his talent, there were write-ups in the press about what a talented musician he is “in spite of his disability” and comments about people being impressed with all he has accomplished “given the obstacles he has had to overcome.” He quickly dismisses that kind of feedback saying, “That’s bologna! If I didn’t have musical talent, I would not have pursued the career that I did. What I find interesting is that when I was starting out, the only thing people wanted to talk about was my disability. As my career progressed, people didn’t talk about it anymore. But in recent years I wanted to talk about it. I wanted to talk about accessibility and how society could relate to people with disabilities. So I asked the reporters who were writing stories about me to mention it. Things had truly come full circle.”
When we remember Christopher Reeve, does most of society see him in a power wheelchair unable to breathe without the assistance of a trach tube or do they see a superhero coming out of a phone booth on the way to rescue Lois Lane?
When we remember Franklin D. Roosevelt, does most of society think about the president who led the country through the Great Depression and World War II and who launched the New Deal? Or do they think about the polio that left him unable to walk and the way his staff and some of his family surrounded him in public so that nobody was aware of how weak his body was?
When people describe Temple Grandin, do they stop at the fact that she has autism? Or do most also mention that she has a Ph.D. and is a professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University, as well as having written several books about being on the spectrum? By doing so, she has given many parents a better understanding of their children.
When Tom Cruise comes to mind, do the young women of the time think about the fact that he has dyslexia, or are they more likely to blush remembering the scene in “Risky Business” when he danced around the living room in his underwear and socks?
Do most people think of Bob Dole as a former senator or a soldier who sustained massive injuries in World War II and as a result, has limited use of his right arm?
Do we remember Michael J. Fox first and foremost as a guy who has Parkinson’s Disease or do we remember him as Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties, the intelligent older brother who occasionally let the world see his human side?
None of the people have accomplished what they did “in spite of their disabilities.” Instead, I believe that they did what they did because they had big dreams and the talent to pursue them.
People first language is something I wholeheartedly believe in. Whatever condition or disability that someone may be affected by, in my mind, they are people first. Why is this issue so important to me personally? Referring to people with disabilities as people first is a way of retaining their humanity, and not making their disability bigger than it is.
Rest in Peace Stephen Hawking. You will always be a person first.