One Size Does Not Fit All

On a forum about geeks and inclusiveness (two things near and dear to my heart), somebody who is a social worker posted about the importance of what they termed “person-first language.” For example, “That Word Grrl has a disability,” rather than “That Word Grrl is disabled.” In their mind, this made the person more important than whatever their disability might be.

This became a problem when they insisted that this language should be used with ALL people who have disabilities.

Which…OK, I guess. But it left me wondering. Why can’t I just be That Word Grrl? Is it truly necessary to point out one of the most visibly obvious things about me? Does it help somebody understand me as a whole person?

Beyond that, I find myself squinting a bit sideways at somebody who does not share my issues feeling a need to rush in and tell me how I want to be treated, without doing of me the courtesy of first asking how I feel about it. Asking at least has the benefit of implying that I have some input into that interaction.

Had they asked me, I’d have to say that person-first language really doesn’t mean much to me, one way or another. My being a person with a disability or a disabled person really doesn’t change or help said disability. To be honest, I’d rather have it not even mentioned on first meeting until they and I have a chance to know each other.

By my own admission, I’m not a terribly good poster child for disability or chronic pain. There are places where I find myself in hard opposition to much of not only what those communities are told, but what they tell themselves. It may well be that the vast majority of these communities prefer person-first language. But one size does not fit all.

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15 Responses to One Size Does Not Fit All

  1. Penny says:

    Person-first language is still generally preferred by self-advocates with developmental disabilities and their allies, but most others in disability activism don’t embrace it so much–some because it’s linguistically awkward and weird (we don’t say “person with tallness,” eh?), some because it sounds like social-worker talk, some because disability is a political/social category more than a personal attribute, some for other reasons. Simi Linton has a long passage on preferring “disabled” in My Body Politic. In the Encyclopedia of American Disability History (Facts-on-File 2009), we intentionally didn’t have a consistent editorial policy–authors of each article were allowed a lot of latitude on terminology overall, to accommodate such complexities.

    To me, it sounds like social-worker talk. As in, “I’m going to address your son in the agency-approved manner that I learned in a training last week, and then I’m going to deny him all the services he needs.” Which doesn’t exactly add up to feeling like my kid is respected and valued, no matter what wording is used.

    • thatwordgrrl says:

      Interestingly, this person got the most heat from commenters with autism/Aspergers, who did not perceive their condition as a disability.

      • Yeah, that’s another common thing–also from Deaf people, sometimes also from blind people. Lots of historical examples of impairment-specific groups wanting to be seen as “not like those guys.” Sigh.

        In disability studies, “disability” isn’t about deficit or missing pieces or being less. It’s about a social category and a cultural otherness that’s applied people who are outside certain narrow bodily or functional norms; and about how those norms are constructed in any particular time or place to exclude or devalue some people, while privileging others; and about the lived experiences of people so categorized, excluded, and devalued. So the question of disability for disability studies scholars isn’t “is there something wrong with you?” It’s “are you ever considered too difficult to accommodate, too impaired to include, too different in your abilities to have equal rights?” (That’s just my quick explanation of the field, btw–ymmv.) And that’s a framing that generally does include Deaf and autistic people.

  2. Adam G says:

    As an adult autistic, I bristle when anyone calls me a “person with autism.” That’s equivalent to saying you are a “person with femaleness”… And equally stupid. I do not have autism. I am autistic. People who say otherwise are demonstrating their discomfort with that fact of life.

  3. Luna says:

    A friend of mine said that she cannot stand talking to disabled people about their disabilities and avoids the topic altogether because no two people seem to agree on how to talk about these things, and she feels like she’ll say the wrong thing no matter what. Can’t say that I blame her.

    • glinda says:

      It can be really simple to navigate that so-called minefield: just ask the person, up-front and respectfully, how they want you to refer to it. (My experience with disability isn’t just the carp I’ve been dealing with for the past decade or so, it’s from having a mother and two aunts who were completely blind but didn’t consider themselves handicapped. And friends throughout the years.

      • glinda says:

        Oh ghods, substitute “crap” for carp, and close the parentheses?
        Internal proofreader/editor fail…

      • Penny says:

        I agree with Glinda–just ask. Making disability something taboo and weird isn’t really a better approach; folks notice what you’re not saying too. We have a game where we time how long it takes new acquaintances to ask such questions. The winners are the ones who *don’t* tiptoe or hem or haw or get panic eyes and change the subject, they just ask. And I’m impressed with how gracefully some people can do that.

    • thatwordgrrl says:

      But that’s not an answer either. It’s just making the issue one of those messy shameful things.

      You might say the wrong thing. Or, yanno, you might actually say the right thing. But you don’t know unless you are willing to risk it.

  4. fallconskat says:

    well, no. one size almost NEVER fits all, unless we’re talking washcloths. those are pretty much one size fits.

    i’d rather say “my friend whose name is” instead of saying a physical descriptor of any type. unless i know two people by that name, in which case i refer by hair color, or what city they live in. otherwise it doesnt really *matter* unless we’re going to be going somewhere that accessibility is an issue.

    discuss a person, not whatever baggage the person carries with them. (and we ALL have baggage of one sort or another!)

  5. cakmpls says:

    Our younger son, who has significant and visible physical disability, always called himself “a handicapped kid” when he was young, but didn’t care how other people phrased it. Although in my editing I have always changed to or suggested (depending on what I am supposed to do in that job) “person with” language, that is for general references. Specific people, like our son, get their own choice. People who want to impose their self-identification on others with the same condition can stuff it.

    And of course you can’t know a person’s choice till they tell you. People who–in this context or any other–expect others to be mind-readers, they can stuff it, too.

    • Luna says:

      Yes, yes, yes.

      And of course, you can end up asking someone who gets offended at you for asking. And they can stuff it too. 🙂

      • thatwordgrrl says:

        I will say here that tone matters. If you ask politely, I will be polite. If you are all up in my grill with “OMFGWHATSTHATTHINGYOUVEGOTTHERE!!!!” I am less inclined to be polite.

      • Penny says:

        Agree with Tina. It’s not nosy or inappropriate to ask a friend or colleague, politely, which words they prefer in a particular situation (similar to, “Should I introduce you to the class as Katherine, or Kate, or Dr. Smith? Or something else?” or “In this article, should I refer to Tom as your partner, your friend, or do you prefer another term?”). It’s nosy and inappropriate if you expect someone to share private information that you have no practical need to know, and they have shown no particular desire to share.

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