Unique New York

Just like a regular woman, only crankier.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

What do you say?

In more recent incarnations of my dissertation proposal, I was recently given feedback by one of my committee members that I need to use person-first language. This committee member vehemently said, "If you got nothing else from my class, I hope you learned person-first language".

Having utterly no idea what she was talking about, I went to the internet for a little education. Aha, says I, as multiple sites popped up, telling me about person first language. In essence, person-first language asks the speaker (or in my case, writer) to refer to a person with a particular diagnosis to reference the person first, then the diagnosis. For example, "The autistic kid" versus "The child with an autism diagnosis".

Let me say first that I agree with the majority of this endeavor to describe people's assets before we start a laundry list of things they can't do. Language is a very powerful tool, and it definitely shapes the way we think about things. Certain labels for various diagnoses connote inability, sub-humanness, or refer to an appliance over the person who uses it. These things are of course, not good. Moreover, they are not things that the general public think about when they are talking about their neighbors. They should. We all should.

And yet...

I am in the priviledged position of having been raised with seven brothers. One of my brothers was born with multiple disabilities. One of my other brothers, we later discovered, has language disabilities. As a sister of two young kids who were the focus of "special" and many times unwanted attention and scrutiny, I am very sensitive to labels. As an adolescent, I really knew how to put the brakes on a lunch room conversation by screaming at my friends, "Your pencil is NOT retarded!! Was it diagnosed with a syndrome? Has it seen a psychiatrist???" and then storming off in some inflated rage at the use of pejorative labels.

To be clear, I was shocked that I had used anything BUT person first language in my proposal about children with autism spectrum disorders.

Imagine my surprise when upon entering my externship this year when I found that the term "client" had been changed (I do not recall a vote) to "consumer". Okay. I like the word client because it denotes someone who receives clinical services...like from me. So consumer? I guess it's better than calling someone "The quad" or something like that. But is "client" pejorative?

Continuing on in my internet search, I found a website by a person who objects to being called "A person with autism" and prefers "autistic person" because the former implies that the condition can be separated from the person, when in fact, it cannot. (E.g., "The person with the blue shirt". Fair point.

Then, the author said that person first language feels like an attempt to cover up something that need not be covered. 30-Love.

This reminded me of when the population decided it was not okay to say American Indians anymore. Instead, we say Native Americans, which implies a certain amount of ownership to indigenous people. However, I object to the term, because anyone born here is a Native American, and it is therefore an inaccurate descriptive term. Also, we Indians don't call ourselves Native Americans. No one asked us. It's like we got a nice term instead of getting our land back. Or, I was gonna hate you white people and take back Manhattan, but you said "Native American" and then that some of your best friends were "African-American" so I called off the war cry. But, seriously, I don't begrudge anyone who uses it. I don't immediately think they are my friend either. Whatever.

I think the impetus for the person first language movement is simple. We object to being unnecessarily hated and feared. For whatever reason, it seems that the person who is so uncomfortable that they say, "The person who happens to be African American" causes the listener to think "Man, that dude is really fucking anxious" or worse, "Man, that dude must be really fucking racist". We object to the ire. What the general public wants to hear from any minority group is one person to be the representative and declare the linguistic rules. Then we as a people can use that language and never think about those icky people again. So maybe it is up to those groups to be constantly changing the language of the secret handshake that lets society know you're not a bastard. But I recognize the frustration of the general public. The bottom line is this: If you say "Person with autism" versus "Autistic person" but you really MEAN to say "The crippled motherfucker", everyone will know that you don't really like whomever you are talking about. People are great detectives when it comes to stuff like this. Thus far, minority groups have not been able to tell you what opinion to have of them (which would seriously cut down on the constant renaming). However, even among those groups there is dissent about how to proceed.


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