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Politically Correct vs. People First Language

I cannot stand politically correct (PC) language. But I am all for People First (PF) language. There is a huge difference there but sometimes people are not aware of what the difference is.

PC language goes into excessive lengths not to offend anybody. Making somebody uncomfortable is the greatest sin. It’s scared of stereotyping. Blonde jokes are out. Three little piggies tale is out in order not to offend all those who consider pork unclean. Reading PC fairy tales is hilarious because let’s face it, fairy tales are all about black and white perception of the world. But that kind of perception is totally unacceptable. People are not white or black, people are Caucasian or African-American. Only those terms often don’t hold. Why would we call somebody whose family lived in America for two or three centuries by where they came from while we are not calling Arnold Austrian-American even though he is rather new to USA? And how do you call white South Africans when they move to USA? Aren’t they African-American after all? Oops?

PC destroys humour because most humour is based on traits of certain groups. Have you ever read John Callahan’s jokes? They are great. They are not PC. They are mainly hated by able-bodied folks and mainly enjoyed by people with disabilities. Callahan laughed at the absurdities of our lives. He laughed at stupid people. One of his best cartoons is a picture of the door of spinal cord injury clinic with its sign: Standing room only.

On the other hand, there is people first language. PFL tries to see a person first, disability second. It says a person HAS a disability, not that a person IS a disability. There is a huge difference.  It shows what we have in common first (being a person). It doesn’t use the words that have a negative connotation out of respect, not out of political correctness. Respect is what drives PFL. Fear of making others uncomfortable is what drives PC.

Now comes the tricky part. Most people will agree that an AB shouldn’t call a wheelchair user by names like crip or gimp. There is a clear negative connotation there. Words hurt. Words do hurt when used wrongly. Just thing of the R-word. But there is no consensus within the disability community itself what is acceptable for people with disabilities (PWDs) to call themselves and their friends. Can a para call himself a gimp? Can he call his friend a gimp? Personally, I think it depends on how the person feels about it. And that’s what should be respected. I can call myself lazy but only my very close friends could call me that. You can’t because it will hurt my feelings. When the word gimp is used by wheelchair users, it doesn’t carry the bad connotation. That’s why it can be used in certain circles.

Words have power. They can hurt us or they can lift us. So when we are using words describing a person with disability, we need to keep that in mind. Are we showing the other respect for who he or she is? Or are we using the word in order to hurt or to stereotype the person by the disability? That’s why using PFL is an important step for integration and tearing down barriers. So we see the person first. The person who is funny, has talents and hobbies, is a good parent, a great friend, a good worker and who just happens to use a wheelchair or have some disability.

So, I would urge you, use people first language whenever you can, especially with able-bodied folks. But as to what you are comfortable to call yourself, you are your own judge and I shall respect it.


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2 Responses to Politically Correct vs. People First Language

  1. James says:

    I think this is all ridiculous. call me anything you want, I do not care. I am a disabled person and the biggest problem that I have found is that people are afraid to talk to me because they are afraid they may offend me. The biggest compliment I can get from anyone is that they see me as enough of a person that they are willing to call me names or offend me, the same as they would anyone else. I am a very strong and popular person who is mainly accepted as a person because people do not have to pre-think everything they say around me. The biggest barrier to people with disabilities being accepted is this new hypersensitivity that i hate. Treat me as a person and insult me. Do not patronize me and fear to talk around me or use terms like “handicapable” because I am a real person. I am not so mentally deficient that the use of a word will determine how I feel about myself. I am actually very intelligent and have made my way on my merits. I have a high GPA and am considered extremely intelligent by most of my peers because I do not buy into the poor cripple stereotype. I would much rather be insulted than patronized since that means I am being seen as an equal and not as inferior being that is too sensitive to handle any negativity.

  2. Elisabeth says:

    James, I agree with you. People are too afraid to offend. I personally see no problem with the word “handicap” as it is understood by the WHO. But some people in USA, both able-bodied and with disabilities, are horrendously offended by it. On the other hand, media always has a tendency to point to the fact that the person is a crip (as a PWD, you can’t do anything right or wrong without the media pointing out what kind of disability you have). I have gotten into trouble using the word crip in the Independent Living Center or even on this website (see the intro). It’s been a couple of years since I wrote this article. I would say it would be nice if the media tried to use people first language (it would be nicer if they just dropped the description on one’s handicap altogether unless it’s essential to the article). As for addressing each other in everyday life, the whole PC and the patronizing that comes with it is nauseating. The trouble is though that there is no consensus among PWDs how they want others to descibe their disability. It really is up to each individual to get his own message across. The more you are comfortable with who you are, the more comfortable people are around you and won’t be afraid that they might step on your toes, even if you had no toes 😉 I can imagine you are doing exactly that and thus people are comfortable with you and treat you as equal. But again, many PWDs don’t realise this, will blame that others don’t like them on others and don’t want to be offended. So I guess one needs to be open to the different possibilities how to talk to different PWDs. (Just think of crip jokes, some hate them, some love them.)