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People First Language

People First photo

At the MDSC, we understand that words – whether positive or negative – matter. Their impacts can be either empowering or disempowering. It’s why we are not only committed to using People First language in all materials, statements, and interactions, but we also zealously encourage the community at large to do the same.

Society has made great strides in recent decades drawing attention to the cruelty of using racial, misogynistic or homophobic language. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of hateful language toward those with disabilities.

A recent study by the Special Olympics Global Collaborating Center at the University of Massachusetts Boston and Harris Interactive looked at popular usage of “the r-word.” The results indicated that 86 percent of youth have personally heard friends or other students at school using the r-word in a derogatory context.

Fortunately, there is a movement afoot to reject the r-word and use “People First language,” and the MDSC is part of it. Kathie Snow, an author and public speaker, defines PFL as representing “more respectful, accurate ways of communicating. People with disabilities are not their diagnoses or disabilities,” she writes on her website, Disability is Natural. “They are people, first.”

The popularity of Snow’s website can itself be considered a success for the People First movement. Here are some other recent successes:

  • An online campaign called “Spread the Word to End the Word” www.r-word.org has collected over 200,000 signatures.
  • Spread the Word’s public service announcement, dubbed “Not Acceptable,” aired during the season finale of Fox’s hit series “Glee,” taking the campaign and its message into millions of American homes.
  • Special Olympics has published a reference guide for the entertainment industry about how to best portray people with intellectual disabilities in film and on television.

It is crucial that we do not allow anyone’s disability to take precedence over the individual person. How we talk about people leads to how we define them. If we choose to define people by their diagnosis, then the diagnosis may be all we ever see.

Like gender, ethnicity, and other traits, a disability is simply one of many natural characteristics of being human.” ~Kathie Snow

People First Language puts the person before the disability, and describes what a person has, not who a person is.” ~ Kathie Snow

Important Links and Documents

People First Language Guidelines
 R-word Spread the Word to End the Word