15 May 2009

The "People First" Conundrum

That old question of language - who it empowers, who it injures, who makes the decisions: Amy Bowllan, school librarian in New York City, Twitter-pal, and blogger for School Library Journal did an e-interview with me recently for her blog.

Is people first language a positive step? Should we continue to encourage it? Read the interview, and for a balanced view read Goldfish (a favorite/favourite blogger) on The Language of Disability.

All your thoughts are welcomed. At Amy's blog or here.

- Ira Socol


The Goldfish said...

Not sure why this didn't generate more comments, as it was a great interview! Of course, I totally agreed with you. I suppose I was kind of surprised to see that you didn't consider yourself “a person with dyslexia”, but then most impairments aren't nearly so socially constructed as dyslexia is. I would have a chronic illness whatever kind of society I lived in, but I am disabled in - and by - this one.

As for diagnostic labels, it seems quite obvious they are part of the problem. They are very useful in medicine, cognitive science and so on, and they can be helpful to individuals, just to put a name to the experience. But I don't think they help us interact with other people.

One of the reasons I avoid mentioning my diagnosis is that there are some who share it who work full time and walk about unaided and others who cannot move or speak and need to be drip-fed. Even doctors, who ought to know better, base their expectations of me on the last patient they had with my condition - and are deeply disappointed or delighted accordingly. But in fact the same goes for most of us; a few disabled people have some "total" impairment; total blindness, total deafness etc.. But most people's impairments are somewhere amid a very messy non-linear spectrum. So I'm not sure there's much to learn about a person's needs or limitations from their diagnosis, simply because of the variety. To say nothing of an individual's own preferences and problem-solving techniques.

Meanwhile, even under the imperfect UK Disability Discrimination Law, it is recognised that disability can start with the label itself; a person may be in perfect health at the point they test positive for HIV, or cancer shows up in a routine scan, but the differential treatment starts there, long before they have any trouble walking or talking or thinking. Given the attitudes that folks express about kids with dyslexia, ADHD and autism, I guess the same has to apply in education.

irasocol said...


Thanks so much for expanding this conversation. Why don't others join in? When US Attorney General Eric Holder said America was a nation "of cowards" when it comes to discussing race, he could easily have said, "and disability." I'm not sure the UK could be described that differently, either.

It is so hard for people to put down their pity, their sympathy, and engage everyone as humans. They are still terrified of admitting to conflicting ideas about "difference."

We just keep pushing, eventually - maybe even without waterboarding - they'll begin to talk.

- Ira Socol