People-First from a Personal Perspective

Coming from a journalistic background, I knew all about the power of words and the importance of wording. When I first started at NARIC and was introduced to People-First Language, I understood the notion but the ethos of the community didn’t immediately sink in. People-First certainly wasn’t part of my vernacular so I’d find myself slipping up at times, being overly cautious or avoiding certain topics all together.

People, first: people with disabilities are, first, people who have unique individual abilities and needs. Once I understood this point, the language part came naturally.

That’s how it is! In the past we had so little knowledge of disabilities and our language reflected our ignorance. With the progress we’ve made, it’s time we change the course of the way we communicate and evolve etymologically.For example, a child with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) used to be referred to as troubled, difficult or disabled as if that child didn’t have the ability to learn. Now, we know that isn’t the case. Children with ADD aren’t disabled—in the sense that they have an inability to learn in conventional settings. It’s just that they may need alternative methods of learning to suit their needs.

There are approximately 54 million Americans—one out of every five citizens—who have a disability, making people with disabilities the nation’s largest minority group. It is also the most inclusive representing people from all genders, ages, religions and ethnic backgrounds. Isn’t it about time we consider how we report on such a large part of our community?

Language is a reflection of where we are as a society. We as a community still have a ways to go when it comes to inclusion and acceptance but People-First language is one very huge step in the right direction.

Here are some tips for reporting on people with disabilities I’ve learned along the way:

  • Put people first, not their disability.
  • Don’t focus on disability unless it’s vital to the story.
  • Don’t sensationalize disability or portray people with disabilities as superhuman.
  • Emphasize their abilities, not limitations.
  • Don’t define individuals by their disability.

Check out more tips in Guidelines for Reporting and Writing about People with Disabilities (PDF).

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