North Texas Daily

Disability shouldn’t be a definition

Disability shouldn’t be a definition

April 24
22:24 2013

According to the most recent census, about 54 million Americans—one in five—have a disability.  Those people with disabilities are just that, people. Their disability is only part of their lives.

People with disabilities are moms, dads, brothers, sisters, friends, neighbors and co-workers.  They each have unique strengths, needs and interests.

Every person with a disability has a different experience with their disability and phrases like “the disabled,” “He’s autistic,” or “She’s confined to a wheelchair” ignore and minimize that different experience.

Person-first language emphasizes that people with disabilities are people who just happen to have a disability.  Language such as “He is a person with Cerebral Palsy” conveys that someone is a person who happens to have Cerebral Palsy.

Describing someone by saying, “He has Cerebral Palsy” has diminished that person to only their Cerebral Palsy. Would you rather be someone who is “wheelchair bound” or “a person who uses a wheelchair?”

Simply put, person-first language is about respect and the notion that people with disabilities are people and not simply their disabilities.

Why is person-first language important?  Language and labels are powerful and form our values and beliefs about things.

Outdated labels prolong stereotypes and attitudinal barriers. Attitudinal barriers are negative assumptions that people make about other people’s ability to contribute to society.

People without disabilities too often consider people with disabilities as helpless and objects of pity.  Phrases like “the disabled” convey this image of a helpless person.

According to the US Department of Labor, 13.7 percent of people with disabilities are unemployed.  Person-first language such as “people with disabilities” helps convey the fact that people with disabilities are able to contribute to society.

Obviously, language alone will not cause employers to start more hiring people with disabilities. However, changes in attitudes about people with disabilities will, and language is a huge part of how attitudes are formed.

So, what can you do? Think of people with disabilities as ordinary people first, who just happen to have these disabilities.

They have good days and bad days.  They are not looking for pity, just acceptance and an equal shot at life. Use person-first language and educate others who do not.

Take a risk and sit with that person who uses a wheelchair sitting by himself at the football game.  Finally, ask people with disabilities questions about their disability.

People with disabilities each experience their disability differently, and knowledge is power. People with disabilities simply want respect and acknowledgment that we are people.  Person-first language gives us this acknowledgment.

Devin Axtman is a political science senior. He can be reached at

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