Associate Professor of Education
University of Mary Washington
Do you remember the day your child was born? Remember the wonder and excitement of all the things your child was to learn in upcoming years? Would the baby have her father's nose or toes or ears? What color would the baby's eyes be and who would the baby most look like? Whose personality would your child's resemble most? Would he be a math superstar or stuggle with math like his Uncle Bill? A new child in the family brings so many expectations, an anticipation of family characteristics, and wishes and hopeful potential for your child.
For those parents with a child with a disability, several adjustments have needed to take place as you learned about your child's diagnosis. As parents go through the process of adjusting, the diagnosis often seems to loom larger than life. It may seem as if you only view your child through the "disablility lens." Parents later get their bearings, and then through education, research and trial/error, learn to have realistic expectations for their child. They learn to enjoy their children for the blessings they bring into their lives and lessons they teach. Parents see that their child is more similar to their typically developing siblings and other children than she is different. They begin teaching others that their child is a "person first," with a disabilty as a secondary characteristic. It is important that parents demonstrate this belief through the language they use. These are valuable lessons that can be taught to family members, teachers, care providers and anyone who comes in contact with your child.
Language and tone are some of the most significant ways to demonstrate the importance we place on individuals. Families discover that disability labels have less importance than they once thought. They may find that disability labels are useful to get children special education services and assistance, but disabilty labels are not what make parents love their child nor what make their child unique. And disability labels are not often successful at predicting outcomes for children. When parents speak about their child to other people, it is often not the disability label that best describes their child, but the other characteristics of who the child is, such as her winning smile, his wonderful ability to reach out to others socially, her sense of humor, or his perseverance. This is "People First Language."
How many of us would want to be known by a physical attribute? "The blond girl," "the guy who has one eye smaller than the other," or, "the person who uses a wheelchair." How many of us would want to be described by just one characteristic (and especially by the one to which we fail to measure up), such as how much weight we gained over the holidays or the fact that we failed college algebra?
Parents have the unique opportunity to train teachers, caregivers and family members about People First Language. At first glance, this may look like a new fad, the politically correct way to say "someone with a disability." It is politically correct, but it is much more than that. People First Language tells those to whom you are speaking that your child is a child with a disability, yet is not solely defined by the disability or the child's needs. It reminds teachers and parents that a child is not "special ed." (Special education is a service, not a label; a child has a disability requiring services from special education.) There may be more words to write, print or say, but these additional words hold a much larger meaning. They convey that your child is more like children without disabilities than she is different. It says, "Hold high expectations for my child and look past the 'disability lens'; provide support where needed, but also see what I see and support that as well."
As we begin the Exceptional Families Series this month, take a moment to look at how you phrase information about your child's abilities and challenges. Are there new ways you can speak/write/talk about your child that demonstrate the highest expectations, love and respect for his abilities as well as his challenges? Can you encourage others to do the same and use People First Language when describing your child?
For more information about People First Language, see: http://www.disabilityisnatural.com/explore/language-communication