A friend of mine, who also has a daughter with disabilities, posed a question on her FB page regarding words and expressions we need to retire. Words that we say without thinking and use in a derogatory manner, like the word “lame”.
(Courtney is an amazing, insightful writer with an edgy dry wit. You definitely should check her out at one-row.com or courtneywyrtzen.com.)
Her post brought back memories of words that became all too familiar in my life. Words that others still use casually or jokingly as I once did. Words that are now weighted. Like a millstone. Words and conditions that I will never again find funny in any way.
The post also made me remember my early experiences with people first language. People first language is a way of speaking about someone with a disability by referring to the person before the disability.
Initially, I hated it. I hated what I perceived as political correctness. I hated that some how it could be implied I was being disrespectful to Nani if I said, “my autistic daughter” rather than “my daughter who has autism”. I Hated the implication that referring to her as autistic meant I saw her disability before I saw her.
I was insulted. I was incensed. I am her mother. I LOVE her!
But I caved. If for no other reason than to stop the slight awkwardness I perceived at the school meetings. Initially, I had to stop myself and re-phrase. It felt contrived. I probably rolled my eyes a bit. Gradually it became more automatic.
But over time I noticed a shift. When I said, “my daughter with autism”, something changed in the way I saw Nani. I saw her, not the autism. I saw only my daughter. Somehow that small change helped me focus more on her abilities and less on her disabilities.
No one was more surprised than me.
Now when I speak of Nani to someone who doesn’t know her, I say, “my daughter is a person with autism”. That change brought it to another level for me. Speaking the truth that she is a person makes me focus on who she is, what is important to her, and the dignity and compassion she deserves.
This small juxtaposition of words changed my heart, changed my vision, removed the filter I had unknowingly been looking through. Do I now love Nani more? No, but I love her better.
I have wondered lately what the impact would be on our hearts if we always made the choice to speak and think in people first language. Would our hearts fill more readily with compassion?
What if the man on the corner was not “that homeless guy” but “a man who is homeless”. When I make that choice I cannot help but think of the bright, shining 4 year old boys I taught, and I wonder what painful path led this man to be standing on this corner, disheveled, his skin leathery from sun and wind, and no hope in his eyes.
What if we didn’t say “foster child” but “a child in the foster system”. Doesn’t it feel so much more apparent, so much more in your face, that a CHILD, (a CHILD!) has endured the painful but necessary loss of his family, and all the pain that led to that removal. Isn’t it harder to look past their pain, harder to look away?
It makes me cry, Lord have mercy. Teach me to love them better.