Braille Monitor                                                   May 2010

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The Continuing Saga of People-First Language

by Larry E. Streeter

Larry StreeterFrom the Editor: Since the emergence of the concept of people-first language some twenty years ago, members of the NFB have objected to the practice and the specious arguments that are used to justify it. At the 1993 convention we even passed a resolution articulating our opposition to the idea that the fact of our humanity must precede any reference to the disability of blindness. Ours continues to be a minority position, at least among bureaucrats and blindness professionals. Some otherwise well-intentioned people, however, apparently find these wordy circumlocutions somewhat seductive. Though we try to keep the pages of the Monitor free of such pointless verbosity, we notice it even creeping into NFB documents. We are always pleased, therefore, to publish fresh statements of the NFB’s established position on people-first language. Dr. Larry Streeter is a longtime Federation leader. He recently submitted the following compilation of arguments for straightforward English. He has been a school administrator at the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Indianapolis, Indiana for two-and-a-half years. This is what he says:

It was not so very long ago that George Herbert Walker Bush, the forty-first president of the United States introduced his thousand points of light. He handed out accolades to those worthy of such recognition. Like the former president I appreciate valuable contributions. Although I do not have a thousand points of light, I do occasionally say to someone that he or she has earned the gold star for the day, week, or month. For example, any teacher of the blind who goes against the traditional way of thinking and introduces Braille or a white cane to a four- or five-year-old blind child (especially those with some residual vision) is worthy of high praise and recognition. I would also offer a gold star when a state rehabilitation agency counselor recognizes that quality training is important for the blind client and agrees to pay for such training at one of our NFB training centers.

On the other hand, as far as I know, Mr. Bush never had a list of one thousand points of darkness, nor do I. However, I do have a few points of irritation. At or near the top of my short list is the use of person-first language. I have always strongly opposed person-first language and over the past decade or so have wanted to address the issue in one way or another. For those who are unfamiliar with the topic, rather than using, for example, the term “blind person,” person-first advocates would use “person who is blind,” “person who is visually impaired,” or “person with blindness or visual impairment.”

Although I could recount several tales on this topic, my personal irritation really went off the charts when I worked at the Idaho State Department of Education. I was serving as the chairman of a task force to conduct a study on the education of blind children in Idaho. About twenty-five people worked on the project at one time or another over the three years of the study. A variety of people served on the task force: teachers of the blind, orientation and mobility specialists, special education directors, general education teachers, blind consumers, parents of blind students, blind students, and vocational rehabilitation personnel, among others. When the study was completed and ready to be printed, a supervisor gave the order that in order to proceed the document had to be written in person-first language. Only one person on the task force used such constructions. I gave the supervisor articles from the Braille Monitor on the subject written by Dr. Kenneth Jernigan and Dr. Ed Vaughan, debated and pleaded, and described how much energy and effort the members had put into the project. In the end it was all in vain. It was clear that the content did not matter; the use of person-first language did. We were able to write a disclaimer, but our initial attempt was considered too strong. In total disgust I ultimately surrendered and apologized individually to many members of the task force. The secretary made the changes, and the document was published. It was circulated far and wide. Years have passed, but every time I think about that report my stomach turns over, and I want to scream.

I have wondered whether anyone out there had the same feelings and attitudes about the subject as I do. I decided that checking this out would indeed be worth my time. I sent a number of emails seeking opinions on the subject, placed my request on Facebook, was surprised that some people did not reply, and reviewed many thoughtful responses. Eventually I selected the following statements and reactions to people-first language:

Barbara Pierce, Ohio: Dear Larry, The definitive statement on people-first language was written by Dr. Jernigan. His thoughts capture it all. I have no patience with this circumlocution. Those who are not ashamed of any characteristic used to describe them are comfortable having it appear before the noun. I vote for crisp, accurate prose, and that is generally not people-first language.

Mary Ellen Halverson, Idaho: As for person-first language, I don't think I have anything new to contribute. Personally I describe myself as blind woman, blind student, blind employee, etc., because these things are reasonable to say and in no way derogatory to me as a blind person. I am not going to beat around the bush and say, "I am a woman who is blind.” I know who I am, and I'm not worried about not being thought of as a woman first. Groups that insist on person-first language must be uncomfortable with our blindness and may try to hide behind language, but their preferred word order should not become law or policy. We have the right to be free in speech and language as long as it is not disrespectful.

Al Spooner, Minnesota: I believe some disabled people prefer this way of describing their disabilities, but I am not one of them. I think that it is very wrong to make the sweeping generalization that all groups of disabled people prefer that we use such phrases as “those who are disabled,” “those who are deaf,” “those who are blind,” etc. The solution is a simple one; just ask! I am a blind person, not a person who is blind. I am disabled, not a person with a disability. I should also point out that a disability and a handicap are not the same thing. When I became blind, I became disabled and handicapped. With the proper adjustment-to-blindness training I was able to eliminate the handicap, but I am and always will be classified by law as a disabled person and as a blind person, which I am not ashamed to be called.

Susan Jones, Indiana: Well my take is that people-first language takes too long to say. Why not just say "blind people" and get to the point? If it takes too long to get to the point, the point may be missed.

Gary Ray, North Carolina: It seems to me that there are a couple of ways to look at this. If I hear person-first language coming from a blind person, I am convinced that he or she has not fully accepted blindness or visual impairment. If however, it is coming from an able-bodied person, I think it is condescending and stupid. When it comes from a blind person, I try to educate and assist him or her to see what is going on inside. If it comes from an able-bodied person, I try to ignore it because I only want to smack them.

Carol Castellano, New Jersey: As I'm sure you know, the thinking behind people-first language is that the person is more important than the disability, so, by using people-first language, we draw attention to the person rather than the disability. Ah, if this were only how language worked. Since this silly form goes against normal English usage, I think it draws more attention to itself and forms its own little phrasing ghetto. In English we put adjectives before nouns, unless we want to draw more attention to the phrase. That’s just how it is, and any native speaker knows it without ever having to learn a rule about it.

I am sensitive to the fact that the language we use is important. As a sixties feminist, for example, I do not like it when people refer to grown women as girls. However, the difference is that we women decided to change the language. It was not thrust upon us from an outside source.

Mike Gibson, Idaho: Person-first language has done nothing to improve or enhance the quality of life for the blind. In fact I think it's accomplished quite the opposite. By putting the person first, you are just sugar coating the problem and denying the real disability and living situation. Once again it's another attempt by the so-called experts to treat the symptoms and not the root problem--lack of confidence, poor training, and little if any support network.

Carrie Gilmer, Minnesota: First I ask, did blind people think this up for themselves as something they desired? That is what I always ask first. I understand the answer here is, no. So then, who thought it up and why? For me the determination whether a phrase, term, or word that labels or describes people is appropriate, derogatory, or useful depends on the purpose and sometimes history of using that word or phrase. In other words: What are you trying to say, man, and why are you choosing to say it that way?

What sweeping change did the inventors of people-first language imagine would occur? That society would get so used to saying “people who are blind” and thinking “people first” that it would move deeply into our nation’s psyche and that from this new knowledge that the blind are indeed people would flow understanding and equality of education and employment? Is making a distinction between being a person first and then blind factually correct or desirable? My husband does not wish to forget that he is black, nor do my children. They do wish some people would not assume certain things it does not mean. A person is fundamentally a person, but a blind person is also fundamentally blind. Blindness is not secondary; it is part and parcel of the whole of that person. It is a fact of eyeballs, not value.

Dr. Fredric Schroeder, Virginia: It strikes me that a person's views on how he or she wishes to be described should be respected. I have no objection to people asking to be called a person with a disability. If there are people in the cross disability movement who object to people-first language, I have not heard about it; hence I use people-first language when talking about the general disability community. Of course not all blind people have the same feelings about people-first language. That said, it is my observation that very few blind people use people-first language, and many object strongly to its use. Starting with the view that we should respect people’s wishes about how they prefer to be described, it strikes me that proponents of people-first language have an obligation to recognize and honor the feelings of blind people and use the words “blind,” not “people who are blind.” They may think we are wrong in our view, but it is our view, and I expect it to be respected as I respect others who prefer the people-first convention.

Shelley Bruns, Colorado: When I received your request, I recalled an experience about thirty years ago. I visited a farm with some friends. When we arrived, we walked around and came to a pigpen. One of my friends smoked. When he had finished his cigarette, he tossed the butt into the pen. Without hesitation one of the hogs, followed by several of his friends, scrambled over and devoured it. Someone in the group made a comment that someday someone would be eating that hog. How does this story relate to people-first language? It just seems to me that someone threw out a concept, and others have swallowed it hook, line, and sinker without ever stopping to think of its negative consequences.

Shelia Wright, Missouri: It is difficult for me to separate the topic of people-first language and politically correct language. They seem to go hand in hand in the minds of those who view themselves as professionals and who want to speak on behalf of the blind. I believe the constant change in what and how to say something is a huge mistake that our society buys into. Some blind people have been deceived right along with the general public. In most cases people-first language only detracts from the real issues. The general public is already uncomfortable approaching a blind person. I think that the overemphasis on people-first language only intensifies their discomfort. They are so worried that they may say something wrong that they often avoid contact altogether rather than risk saying the wrong thing. Others take the risk but start out apologetic or struggle with how to phrase their questions.

I am not at all put off by being referred to or referring to myself as a blind person. I don’t think it in any way makes me less of a person. Changing one's language does not successfully change attitudes, perceptions, or beliefs. Nor do I find that those who seem to be comfortable with people-first language to be more aware of my interest, skills, abilities, capabilities, or needs. In fact it seems to me that some people hide behind language. I firmly believe that the use of the word “blind” and not trying to separate it from being a part of me is what has helped me to understand that being blind does not define me.

Dean Bundy, Virginia: On the subject of people-first language, I offer this little nugget on the subject of political correctness, of which people-first language is a particularly egregious example. Specifically, there is an annual contest at Texas A&M University calling for the most appropriate definition of a contemporary term. This year's term was "Political Correctness.” The winner wrote: "Political correctness is a doctrine, fostered by a delusional, illogical minority, and rabidly promoted by an unscrupulous mainstream media.” Unfortunately, Larry, I am unable to share the final nineteen words from the quote because your editor would have to cut them. However, the comment above is dramatically correct.


There you have just a few of many comments received from blind and sighted persons. I noted recently with great pleasure that the NFB published a book with 100 letters from blind and sighted children and adults on the topic of Braille reading and writing. By now the president of the United States has received a copy of this document. I have read many of these letters, and so far it is abundantly clear that people-first language was not preferred or accepted by those submitting letters. The lack of support for people-first language by the vast majority of blind people should send a clear message to those who insist on using such language.

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