Put the Person Before the Disability

We’ve all heard it, and unfortunately at some point in our lives, we have probably even used it: The “R” word. Who cares, we don’t mean it to be offensive, right? Wrong. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the definition of the word retard is “to slow down the development or progress of (something).” Unfortunately, the word has taken on a negative connotation and indicates stupidity or foolishness.

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I spent several summers during college working for the Department of Human Services Division of Developmental Disabilities, where I had the opportunity to visit with people from across the state who had some form of an intellectual disability. I visited with their family, friends, and the people who worked with and for them on a regular basis. One statement that stood out to me over the years was a young man saying to me, “I know people don’t think I get it, but I do.” This was a person who had been called names, been picked on, and was in special education classrooms for most of his educational life.

Fast-forward 10 years — I see a young child with a disability being picked on at a public place by her peers. My thoughts immediately went to this young man’s words. Do these children understand what they are doing to this little girl? Do they realize how much she is hurting, even though they think she does not understand? I immediately got out of my car and spoke to the children, though I doubt that they truly understood my concerns. Maybe their parents have never addressed this, maybe they don’t know any other children with disabilities or maybe they just don’t get it.

Eliminate Hurtful Language

There are plenty of campaigns happening all over the United States that aim to bring awareness to hurtful language among children and teenagers, but is there education for adults? Maybe if we educate our friends, family and co-workers we can end this type of bullying.

People First Language puts the person before the disability, eliminating hurtful and offensive descriptors. For example, instead of stating, “she’s autistic,” a better phrase would be “she has autism”. I wouldn’t refer to a friend as, “my cancerous friend,” but as “my friend who has cancer,” because the cancer does not define that person; why let a disability define a person? By using people first language, we can shift the focus from the disability to the person. Let’s look at what a person can do, instead of what they are unable to do.

The Special Olympics launched their “Spread the word to end the word” campaign in 2008, educating students from kindergarten through college; This aims to eliminate the use of the word “retard” by educating children and teens that it is a hurtful word. This campaign has collected over 100,000 signatures of people agreeing to promote inclusion and respect.

Thanks to campaigns like these, we are becoming more aware of how our language can be hurtful. Unfortunately, we still have work to do! Next time you hear a friend, co-worker, or acquaintance use an offensive term, speak up! Sometimes, all it takes is a little bit of education and a friendly reminder.

Carrie Larson, MS, OTR/L

By Carrie Larson, MS, OTR/L

Occupational Therapist at Avera St. Mary's Hospital

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