Labels can speak volumes about how we are perceived and how we perceive others. In fact, identifiers and labels can be used to set someone apart from the norm. They are a way to make someone The Other. That’s why I hate hearing our son T. referred to as a “Down Syndrome child” or “a special needs kid.” Or the worst: “a Downs child.”
If I have to identify T. in relation to his diagnosis, I say he is “a kid who happens to have Down syndrome.” In my heart of hearts, I prefer describing T. as “a kid.”
Many of us don’t even realize we are making this distinction. Not because we are jerks, but because we tend to err on the side of labeling people who have disabilities. Many people use terms like “ADD kids,” “Special needs children,” or “Oppositional Defiant teens.” But I think it’s important to ask how that language makes kids feel.
I find that what separates my child from participation in most settings is not his disability as much as how his disability is seen by others. For example, if you don’t know anyone with Down Syndrome except the bag boy at the local grocery store, you might base your entire understanding of a whole group on just one person. In my mind, this is like thinking all Asians are good at math or all men like football.
When you hear the words “Down Syndrome son” you might automatically think my kid is slow, dependent, and not capable. The reality is that he is someone who loves The Avengers, baseball, burgers, ice cream and having friends — just like your kid.
For these reasons, I am a big proponent of using Person-first language (PFL)* as a way to put the person before the disability. Don’t mistake what may seem like a subtle re-ordering of words as political correctness. Think of it instead like “The Golden Rule.” Most of us probably would not want to be identified by one aspect of our lives. We might even be concerned it would minimize us.
Worse, stigmatize us.
Cue music and imagine this sort of conversation taking place between two people:
“Do you know Barb?”
“You mean, overweight Barb, with the alcoholic husband?”
“No, that’s Mindy. Loudmouth Barb with the dyslexic daughter.”
“And, the diabetic son?”
“You almost have that right. Actually he is the ADHD, diabetic son.”
“Yea, I know her. She lives next door to the messy Johnson’s and their spoiled-rotten kids.”
“Right. Anyway, Loudmouth Barb was talking with Kari…”
“Kari, the special needs mom?”
“Yea. But, I wouldn’t let her overhear you describing her that way!”
* I want to acknowledge and respect that PFL is not preferred by everyone with a disability such as those individuals who are deaf, blind or autistic.