As an international student from the United Kingdom, I am no stranger to familiarising myself with the subtleties of language that differentiate my native tongue from that of the United States. In addition to the “chips” or “fries” conundrum and “pavement” versus “sidewalk” debate, I have recently become aware of another linguistic nuance that appears to carry much greater significance: person-first language. A phenomenon that has not yet reached the UK with such widespread impact as it has in the US, person-first language is a type of linguistic prescription linked largely to the disability community which seeks, as far as possible, to place the person before their diagnosis or impairment. For example, in this framework it would be preferable to use “persons with disabilities” over “disabled people”.
At this point, it must be noted that it is extremely rare for me to be offended by any words referring to my disability. However, I do naturally have certain preferences for which particular words I use to refer to my identity and my disability is no exception.
To me, the term “disabled person” with which I am most familiar back in the UK implies that a person’s disability is all-encompassing and defines their entire existence. “Disabled” can easily be interchanged with similar words that suggest a wholly non-functioning, incapacitated state and, from personal experience, I know this to be far from the case. In contrast, the term “person with a disability” more commonly used in the U.S. implies that just one or more particular aspects of that person causes them to face additional challenges and, for me, this would be my weak muscles and inability to walk. This choice of syntax not only makes the individual the primary focus of the statement instead of their disability, but also more accurately portrays the nuanced nature of disability. It is not my intention to distance myself from my disability entirely as I am eager to acknowledge this as a significant part of who I am, however it is just that – one part of a complex and wonderful whole.
Another word that continues to bewilder me is “handicapped” and its widespread use in the US. Since this word has long been considered highly offensive in the UK, I can’t help but gasp slightly on being asked politely to join the “handicapped line” or use the “handicapped restroom.” Despite ongoing debate surrounding its roots, the word “handicap” is largely believed to originate from the phrase “cap in hand” and the need for those with disabilities to subsist as beggars. Whether entirely factual or otherwise, this belief has caused the word “handicap” in all its forms to be cast out from common British parlance and replaced by its less explosive equivalent, “disabled.” I find it wholly fascinating that such a word can hold such vastly differing connotations on either side of the Atlantic, but am growing accustomed to its use on U.S. soil and accept it as yet another dimension to our cultural idiosyncrasies.
In an attempt to combat these diverging viewpoints surrounding disability rhetoric, certain members of the community have put forward “differently abled” as a preferable alternative. Again, this is a highly personal matter, but I personally view this as a somewhat extreme measure to combat negative disability perception. I can only speak on behalf of myself, but having a diagnosis of Spinal Muscular Atrophy certainly does not afford me any sort of super ability that the next person does not have. Aspects of my life that do differ from the expected, such as driving a powered wheelchair instead of walking, are achieved solely as a consequence of circumstance and not as a result of some additional ability that I possess.
Coming to a place such as Stanford where identity exploration is increasingly being brought to the fore, I am more aware than ever of the words I use and how these are received by those around me. As I continue to explore my own identity and discover how I wish to be presented to the world, I am coming to appreciate the significance of words and their usage all the more. Despite not wanting to cause anxiety for those interacting with me over such a relatively small thing, it is important to acknowledge the power in the words we use and continue to learn how best we can use them to achieve an accepting and inclusive society.
Contact Tilly Griffiths at tillykg ‘at’ stanford.edu.