A Child Who Lived with Autism: Why Person First Language Matters by Calvin Eaton

A local tragedy that resulted in the death of a 14 year old young man brought out the need for a complete overhaul of the local Rochester City School District. However, the case also highlighted  how we classify and talk about individuals living with disabilities and mental illness. The young man Trevyan Rowe lived with autism and the local media reporting, social media commentary, and public conversation around this fact brought to light the glaring issues that we as a society continue to have when talking about children and people living with autism and other learning disabilities .

As a person living with a disability as well as a Special Educator; my sensitivity to person centered language and terminology is probably more heightened than most. And in an age where everyone feels entitled to have a voice and say whatever it is that they want to say, however they want to say it; calling someone out for using less than PC language can result in Twitter wars and Facebook debates.

In the end the fact of the matter is that words matter. What we say and how we say it matters and in 2018 everyone should understand that using words such as retarded and autistic when referring to someone that lives with autism or any other intellectual disability is antiquated and insulting. 

Why Person-First Language Matters

The largest single minority within the world (much less the United States) is people with disabilities. Disabilities can refer to either mental or physical challenges, and a person can join this group at any time, from before birth to late in life. It crosses every other line that define minorities (race, gender, etc.).

When we define a person by the disability we are in essence saying that the disability that they live with  is their most defining factor. We are taking away their humanity by not acknowledging them as a person, as a human first. This is insulting. This is wrong. Normally, when using a disability first (as in the autistic child), the descriptor is almost always painting the person in a negative light. A person living with autism, or depression, or bipolar disorder is a person first and them living with a disability is not something negative. In fact many people living with any number of disabilities are some of the most amazing people on the planet all possessing wonderful qualities and traits that far supersede the disability that they live with; which is only a piece of who they are as a human being.

When we put the characteristic or quality before the person, we are defining that person as the characteristic first and as a person second. We have defined that person’s whole existence by a perceived box. In effect, we have defined the person as less than human, as less than a person. We have implied that somehow that person’s existence is not quite as deep or rich or whatever-term-you-want-to-place-here as a “normal” person’s. We are well, but that person is now only defined as sick.

According to Mental Health America of Eastern Missouri: “People First” language refers to speaking and writing in a way that acknowledges the person first, then the condition or disability. It also indicates what a person HAS, not what a person IS. For example, one would use the phrase, “a person has schizophrenia” or “a person with schizophrenia” rather than saying “he’s schizophrenic.”

Change your Language to change your thinking

Person-first (or people-first) language “aims to avoid perceived and subconscious dehumanization when discussing people with disabilities.” In effect, you change your language to change your thinking. This takes quite a bit of effort, time, attention, and self-awareness. It also takes humility to not be defensive when called out but a desire to seek to listen to understand.

  • Is it handicap parking or accessible parking?
  • A handicap ramp or just a ramp?
  • A handicap bathroom or a family/accessible bathroom?

People first language begets people first thinking and thinking that is not inherently demeaning, devaluing, or ableist.

So the next time you think to say “He/she is autistic…think is this person first and put the human before the disability.

For more reading on the importance of person first language visit:

  1. https://www.mha-em.org/images/documents/people_first_language-txcdd.pdf
  2. https://www.concordiatechnology.org/blog/2016/01/why-person-first-language-matters

Calvin Eaton is the Founder of 540WMain Learning Academy and Editor in Chief of theglutenfreechefblog He lives with fibromyagia, celiac disease, and chronic fatigue syndrome.

Source (s): Concordia Technology, MHA.org



Published by Calvin Eaton

(he/his/him) Calvin Eaton is a disabled community educator, content creator, and social entrepreneur, whose area of expertise includes antiracism, equity, justice, instructional design, and program development. In 2016 Mr. Eaton founded 540WMain, Inc. a non-profit online and community-based organization for accessible education and events that promote justice for all.

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