Braille Monitor                                                    March 2009

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People-First Language: An Unholy Crusade

by C. Edwin Vaughan

From the Editor: Dr. Vaughan is a frequent contributor to these pages and a scholar in the field of disability. His most recent book, The Struggle of Blind People for Self-Determination, published by Charles C. Thomas, is available for $40 in bookstores or from the National Center for the Blind. Many of us who write and speak frequently about blindness and the problems that blind people face have struggled in recent years against the increasing pressure to use what has come to be called "people-first" or "preferred" language. It is unwieldy and repetitive, and any ear tuned to appreciate vigorous, precise prose must be offended by its impact on a good sentence. But proponents of this formulaic circumlocution have decided that mention of the person must always precede reference to his or her disability or the effect will be to show disrespect for the individual under discussion. The result has been to shame many good speakers and writers into forms of expression to which they would never otherwise have stooped. Dr. Vaughan has had enough, and so have many of the rest of us. We are ashamed neither of who we are nor of the characteristics that help to shape us. Here is what he has to say:

Ed VaughanFrom the editorial concerns of academic journals to the opinions of individual educators and agency directors, I encounter a continuing agenda for bringing uniformity in the language used to describe disabled people. Proponents would have everyone use people-first language, such as "people who are blind" rather than "blind people" or "a person who is deaf" rather than "a deaf person." By so doing they claim to focus on the whole person rather than the disability. In April, 1993, an agency executive, expressing his concern for uniform usage, wrote to Dr. Jernigan, "The point is that the language is now putting people first rather than our disability." He went on to say that there had been agreement about this in the Independent Living movement for several years.

In that same month, in a meeting of the editorial board of a major journal in the field of rehabilitation, a prominent educator argued that the blindness field should "get on with it." I have also received specific instruction from journal editors to use the preferred language--"people who are blind." I regret to say that I have sometimes acquiesced in order to get an article past the gatekeepers. The issue has become so important to some that it has even led to empirical research published in major journals.

One of the most recent is an article by Jan La Forge (1991) which tabulated the use of preferred language in all major articles in three major rehabilitation journals in 1988 (p. 50). She concluded that, despite fifteen years of professional effort, preferred language is used only about fifty percent of the time (p. 50). "Perhaps those of us in the rehabilitation profession may need to confront our own possible limiting attitudes before we are enabled to lead the public in consistently employing language signifying positive regard for all humankind--including those with disabilities" (p. 51). Using the preferred language--persons first--puts the so-called correct user on the side of humanity and human rights--surely a good place to be. However, near the end of her research, she includes what I judge to be a crucial observation: "We do not even have data to support the claim, and belief, that those who are disabled themselves prefer what is now called nondisabling language" (p. 51). Most of the arguments I have encountered are put forward by the proponents of preferred language, who are so immersed in their crusade that they do not even demonstrate an awareness of other points of view. But these other views, the subject of this paper, make the people-first crusade appear not very holy and perhaps even harmful.

Sometimes preferred language is rejected for literary reasons; it is awkward, tiresome, and repetitive, and it makes articles needlessly long. Reading repetitions of the phrases "persons who are blind" or "people who are visually impaired" becomes tiresome to anyone after ten to fifteen occurrences. This criticism is certainly on the mark; however, it is the least significant of the arguments against the preferred language crusade.

I wonder if the proponents of people-first language believe that putting disabled people first on the printed page accomplishes anything in the real world? Does it alter attitudes, professional or otherwise, about disabilities? What is their evidence? The awkwardness of the preferred language calls attention to a person as having some type of "marred identity" (Goffman, 1963). But the misconceptions that diminish the lives of disabled people must still be countered directly.

There are at least two ways to look at this issue. First, the awkwardness of the preferred language focuses on the disability in a new and potentially negative way. In common usage positive pronouns usually precede nouns. We do not say, "people who are beautiful," "people who are handsome," "people who are intelligent," etc. Under the guise of the preferred language crusade, we have focused on disability in an ungainly new way but have done nothing to educate anyone or change anyone's attitudes.

Second, we are told that preferred usage will cause us to focus on the whole person. In the best of all possible worlds, where ignorance, stereotypes, and advantages over others do not exist, this might be the case. But until we reach that condition--and that will be a long time coming--might it not be preferable to use language that reflects the actual experiences of most disabled people? In interaction with others, disabilities are almost never ignored. Disabled people learn to manage such situations. If we are going to expend this concentrated effort, why not launch a broader-based, more substantive crusade which would change images and ideas about conditions that are sometimes frightening and seldom well understood? For example, why not work on changing the connotations of what it means to be blind--to challenge old understandings with new insights about blindness? Many blind people are proud of the accomplishments of their brothers and sisters. Just as black became beautiful, blind is no longer a symbol of shame. To say, "I am blind" or "I am a blind person" no longer seems negative to many, particularly those groups with existential interest in the topic.

Finally, in the broadest sense this issue is a political one. From the first book of the Judeo/Christian Bible to the work of Michel Foucault, giving a name is important and suggests domination (Vaughan, 1993, pp. 115-142). There are many different kinds of people with various disabilities. Some groups may have progressed more than others in their effort to redefine their situations in the wider society. Some individuals and groups of individuals wish to name themselves (or at least not have new labels, preferred usage, created for them by experts who would do them good.) So why the current people-first language crusade? Why not respect the wishes and diversity of many directly involved individuals and consumer groups? Is this not in part what empowerment is about? No one objects to other people's use of awkward phrases such as "persons with blindness," if they want to be tedious writers. But isn't it pretentious to make such convolutions the preferred or even the only acceptable constructions? Is this not rather the effort of some misguided professionals who, without listening, are trying to change the world of those they purport to serve?

I know that many well-meaning professionals will disagree and wonder how anyone could question the benevolence of the preferred language crusaders. To me, however, this is a measure of their isolation from the very thinking and actions within disability groups that hold the greatest prospect for changing attitudes and behavior. The concept of preferred language is merely academic--in the worse sense of the term. It means very little with respect to anything of consequence in the everyday world. We can only hope that the day will come when editors will retreat from their misguided demands and once again allow language to become the carrier of positive images as well as letting it reflect the wishes of disabled people themselves.

Goffman, Erving. 1963. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

La Forge, Jan. 1991. Preferred language practice in professional rehabilitation journals. The Journal of Rehabilitation, 57 (1):49-51. (January, February, March)

Vaughan, C. Edwin. 1993. The Struggle of Blind People for Self-Determination; The Dependency-Rehabilitation Conflict; Empowerment in the Blindness Community. Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas.


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