June 1, 2013

Autism, People First Language

For the past year, I've been trying to write an article dedicated entirely to autism, but every time I tried, I ended up having to trash the draft, but not the idea. I've realised that the reason why I couldn't do it was because, in my writings, I was trying to separate what's "normal" of me, and what of me is autistic. I was trying to separate myself from my autism.

It was an impossible task from the beginning; I cannot separate myself from autism as it is a part of who I am. For so many years, I've tried to mimic what was considered "normal" just so I could survive school. Autism affects my life everyday that I sort of just became accustomed to it; if anything, I just seem quirky. So I guess from all of these factors, I had led myself to believe -- rather, I had convinced myself that I was normal while having a vague remembrance that I had a form of Autism.

Sure, some may say that "there is no such thing as normal", which to a degree is true. But try telling that to people who get bullied, or to people who for various reasons may feel demonized because of their disability.

This brings me to the topic of language.

As we all hopefully know, language is a very powerful tool. The pen may not be as mighty as the sword, but it is still capable of influencing thoughts and behaviors. The pen may not kill you, but it can definitely feel like torture. Worst of all, these words may make one think of themselves as less than human.

Words Matter

It's for this reason that we call people with disabilities as people instead of as their disability. It's not that they should be ashamed of their disability, it's that they are people too, and while their disability may be a large part of their lives, as the theory goes, it's not appropriate to call them as their disabilities. There are, of course, few exceptions.

Such language that I've been talking about is called "People First Language". It's essentially a form of political correctness, and something that I wish some of my not-for-profit colleagues would understand is that since language is ever-evolving, legislating what words you can and can't say is going to be almost impossible. Not a waste of time, but time that could be better spent on educating people on what words can do.

Adample - Words hurt
Art by Adample

I have a coworker who is hard of hearing and relies on both a hearing aid and a cochlear implant; before the implant, he used his hearing aid and lip-reading. He doesn't use American Sign Language when he talks to people as he finds it distracting to focus on both handspeak and vocal speak, but he does know how to sign. He's also an active member in deaf-circles; as he puts it, every deaf person knows every deaf person in the state, and almost all in the country.

Now, those were his words; deaf-circle. Deaf-person. This is not people first language! Well, that's because the deaf-community, and the Autistic community, doesn't like People-First Language because they feel that by using that language, one is trying to separate the disability from the person when that disability is a large part of that person's life; some may feel pride in their disability. And honestly, I can't help but agree. These two communities are the two exceptions I spoke of, by the way.

These are ideas that put me at odds with a lot of not-for-profit organizations that call for disability awareness.  These organizations also put a strong emphasis on People-First Language; some so much that they run campaigns every year on it. Sometimes it feels like the only goal of some organizations is to tell people to be more politically correct.

Understand that I'm not trying to say that we shouldn't be educating people about using language that acknowledges that the person is indeed a person and that we need to stop demonizing disabilities. But I do think we need to do more than just spending four or five years going to different cities and telling them what they should or shouldn't say and how to address us. It sounds snobby to me.

I am autistic. While I don't take pride in it, I'm not ashamed of it either. I know that I am a person, and that I'm no less of a person just because I have a disability.

Justin Dart / Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere

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author Tiger Craven About Tiger
Tiger is a 22 year old college student, activist, and professional living in the Saint Louis metro area. When he's not being apathetic to the idea of God or writing about atheism, he is serving a presidential term for a mental health organisation and a board membership of another, does public speaking about mental illness and disability, and is a photographer and a bassist.