Putting People Before Disabilities

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06 Jul 2018

Did you ever read George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984? Written in 1948, it takes place in the then-far-flung future of… well, 1984. In the superstate of Oceania, the official language is called Newspeak. This language has been artificially constructed to control thought. In addition to eliminating bothersome concepts from the language, the Party (rulers of Oceania) have three slogans that are repeated at and by the populace: War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, and Ignorance is Strength. The people are told what to think and this is reinforced by the words they are given to express themselves.

1984 may be a fiction but Orwell was illustrating a real phenomenon: what we think is influenced by what we say and hear. This phenomenon can be utilized for good or evil. For example, the Sefer HaChinuch tells us that the reason we are commanded to recite Shema twice daily is to constantly reinforce within us the idea of God’s Kingship, which serves to keep us on the proper path. Advertising slogans like “Coke is it” serve to make the populace hungry for particular products. Of course, there’s political propaganda, all too often used to smear one’s opponents. To give a mild-by-our-standards example, 1952 presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson was labeled an “egghead” by his opponents, not intended as a compliment; it was an epithet and a perception that stuck. Perhaps most similar to the slogans of the Party, consider the motivations to inscribe “Arbeit Macht Frei” – “work will set you free” – over the gates of numerous Nazi concentration camps.

So, taking it as a widely-accepted reality that what we say and hear influences what we think, what words do we use to describe others? We addressed this topic once before but there the focus was on calling others what they want to be called. Here, I wonder what our choice of words does to ourselves.

I recently became aware of the importance of using person-first language when it comes to persons with disabilities. You will note that I said “persons with disabilities” and not “disabled people.” The former choice of words more likely conjures an image of individuals first and disabilities second; the latter almost invariably causes one to envision an indistinguishable mass exclusively defined by those disabilities.

Historically, people with disabilities have been perceived as infirm or imperfect, as evidenced by such passé terms as “handicapped” and “crippled,” which focus on what a person is imagined to be unable to do. These terms unfairly lump people into groups based on inaccurate assumptions and unfair generalizations. When we define people by what we think they cannot do, what they can do never even has a chance. And if a group of people is defined by what they cannot do, the popular perception becomes that they are a burden on society rather than productive members of it.

Person-first language puts the individual before his disability. It describes what a person has, it doesn’t presume to define what a person is. Examples of person-first language are given below. (These are only examples; there can be numerous person-first ways to phrase the same disability):

Here’s an important one:

This is really just common courtesy. If you weighed considerably more than you would like and a child said, “You’re fat,” you’d probably be offended even though you’re well aware of your size. Having the full scope of your own self as a person, you probably think of yourself as “having a weight problem.” It doesn’t define you, it’s just one of many attributes you possess. The same is true if you wear glasses or have no hair. Well, it’s also true for people with physical, mental, emotional or developmental disabilities. None of us wants to be defined by a characteristic we consider to be negative. We all deserve a chance to put our best foot forward without having to first combat others’ preconceptions.[1]

Aside from going person-first when it comes to disabilities, it’s important not to equate a person with any assistive devices that they may use. Just as glasses are something we wear, a wheelchair or other device is something a person uses. It doesn’t define them.

Finally, golf and horse racing notwithstanding, inanimate objects cannot be “handicapped.” It’s not a “handicapped” parking space or restroom, it’s accessible.

I have heard (though not researched) that some disability communities (specifically, the visually-impaired and hearing-impaired communities) do not favor the person-first approach (which is why I did not use it in the preceding parenthetical comment). That’s okay; people are allowed to make such calls for themselves. It’s quite another thing, however, to make such a call for someone else. When in doubt, use person-first language. And if you’re not sure about the proper person-first terminology, just do your best. (“Who has autism” may not be as elegant as “who has an autism spectrum disorder” but it’s still a person-first option.)

Our choice of words makes a difference. Words can be used to empower someone (“Shema Yisroel”) or to break them (“Arbeit Macht Frei”). We can choose words that set people up for success or words that communicate that we expect failure. Disability-primary language focuses on our expectations of others’ shortcomings and limitations. Continued use of such language reinforces that idea in ourselves and transmits it to others, including the next generation. Person-first language acknowledges a disability but only as one characteristic of a person, without generalizations or stereotypes. When we opt for person-first language, we’re not just being polite to people with disabilities. We’re changing a mindset that limits us all.

1. Don’t go looking for any deeper meaning in my choice of the phrase “best foot forward.” It’s just a common expression. I actually Googled it to see if it’s offensive when talking about disabilities and I found no objection to it.

Learn more about inclusion from Yachad – The National Jewish Council for Disabilities

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of six books, including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion. His latest work, The God Book, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.