By: Scott Burlingame, Executive Director
What do we call ourselves?
The folks served by Independence, Inc. have a long history of being called names. A century ago, they were called cripples, invalids, idiots, morons, and many other words that are nowadays used as juvenile insults rather than scientific terms to define people.
Fifty years ago, the people served by Independence, Inc. may have been called handicapped, mentally retarded, or insane. These words, while acceptable at one point, have also evolved into words commonly used as insults rather than to define a condition that affects our abilities to function in the world.
In an effort to soften harsh terms given to people, some have become rather creative with how they define those with functional limitations. People are called “handi-capable”, “differently abled", “mentally challenged”, “touched” or some other type of euphemism that attempts to downplay the very real struggles people live with. Their ability to succeed in even simple tasks is held up by others as an example of how life could be so much worse.
Rather than these ways of referring to the people we serve, Independence, Inc. has long accepted and used people first language. People first language is simply putting the person before the disability. For example, we would say, "Jeff is a person who uses a wheelchair rather than saying,"The handicapped man who is wheelchair bound”.
People first language has long been the gold standard in how to talk about people with disabilities, although that may soon change. There is a growing number of advocates who now prefer "identity first language." Proponents of identity first language argue that their disability is an important part of who they are, and they hold a strong sense of disability pride. They would say, "I am a disabled man who uses a wheelchair.”
I like everything about this. I think accepting your disability as a natural part of who you are, and having pride in your disability is a key component of being a successful and happy person. Unfortunately, change is slow, so until identity first language is fully implemented, I expect Independence, Inc., to continue using people first language as a standard communication practice for a disability rights organization.
My biggest message is it is not about the words you use, but what those words mean. If you are referring to people as “retarded or insane” are you really viewing that person as an equal in the community? Are you likely to view that person only by their functional limitations, or as a friend, family member, co-worker, employer, and a community member?
If you refer to people as “handicapped, touched, or mentally challenged” are you recognizing the reality of their lives? People with disabilities do not exist for your inspiration. They are not proof of how blessed you are. They are people who often have many of the same hopes and dreams you do, and are trying to find their way through this often difficult world.
So how about you call me Scott? Call me your coworker, your friend, your executive director, your community member, or any of the many other social roles I hold. While I am proud of my disability, it is really only part of who I am. I am guessing most of my brothers and sisters with disabilities feel the same.