Person-First Terminology: A Language of Respect for People with Disabilities | Congregation Beth Am

Person-First Terminology: A Language of Respect for People with Disabilities

By Beth Am Inclusion Director Nirit Zandman

Much progress has been made over the years to make society more accepting and respectful of people with disabilities by changing laws and attitudes. There are many ways that we can continue to improve as a community and society, and one of these ways is to examine the language that we use.

When referring to people with disabilities, we tend to use their disability as an adjective to describe them. Often, without paying attention or having any intent to hurt people, we may use phrases such as “She is autistic” and “He is hyperactive” or refer to groups of people as “the disabled” or “special needs kids.” This type of language implies that a person’s disability is what defines them and is the most important thing about them. As many of us know from personal experience, having a disability is not what defines a person. Their disability only tells us about a condition that they have. In addition, no two people who share a diagnosis are the same, and despite having similar symptoms, their individual experiences are unique to them.

The Person-First language puts the person before the disability and helps us pay attention to aspects of the person other than their disability. By changing language, hopefully we also change the way our culture thinks of people, so that instead of viewing people with disabilities by what they are unable to do, we emphasize that each person has unique qualities and talents alongside their disability. We can say: “John has a hearing impairment” or “Sarah has dyslexia” (instead of  “Sarah is dyslexic”). A disability or a medical condition is what a person has. It is not at all who a person is! As Rabbi Ben Azzai reminds us in Pirkei Avot (The Sayings of the Sages, 4:3), “Do not disdain any person. Do not underrate the importance of anything — for there is no person who does not have his hour, and there is no thing without its place in the sun.”

I strongly believe that changing our language can change our attitude towards people with disabilities in our community. It requires us to be more aware and pay close attention to the words we use. It is a conscious effort, and it takes time and practice. This change in terminology has already been implemented by federal, state and local agencies. If you would like to show your commitment to making this change, consider signing the “Pledge of Respect for Students with Disabilities” created by the Inclusion Collaborative and the Santa Clara County Office of Education.

Furthermore, as we practice acceptance and respectful language, it is always good to ask people how they would like to be referred to and be sensitive to what they are comfortable with.

I invite you to help support this effort and spread the word, for words are powerful and they shape our views as well as our actions.

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We strive to live as a holy community whose study and practice of Judaism inspires and challenges us to "do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God" (Micah 6:8).