People First?: Issues Surrounding the Language of Disability #AtoZChallenge

Hi everyone and welcome to my letter P post in the #AtoZChallenge. I wasn’t really sure what to write for today’s letter and was still feeling a bit unmotivated, until I decided on a topic and now I’m excited to share. Today, I am going to talk about the language surrounding disabilities, particularly of course intellectual and developmental disabilities. I kind of provocatively titled my post “People First?”, because that, without the question mark, is often used as an argument for so-called destigmatizing language.

Which language, to be honest, isn’t destigmatizing at all. I mean, of course it is good that the term “mental retardation” got removed from the DSM (in 2013!). However, when you refer to someone as an “IB’er” (shorthand for “intensive support user” in Dutch), with “intensive support user” being code for a person with significant challenging behavior, it isn’t destigmatizing at all. And no, in my opinion, changing things around to person-first language (“person with intensive support needs”), doesn’t necessarily remove the stigma unless it is accompanied by an added awareness that someone is more than their support needs. As a side note, the only time I’ve heard the term “IB’er” used in reference to me, was by my staff saying I am not one, by which they mean I don’t need the harsh approach my fellow clients apparently need. I mean, it can’t really mean I don’t have challenging behavior, right?

With respect to people with intellectual disabilities in general, person-first language is commonly preferred by professionals. Whether this is less stigmatizing, I doubt. To be honest though, the abbreviations used in job descriptions and care profiles, usually don’t employ person-first language at all. For example, a treatment facility for people with mild intellectual disability and significant challenging behavior is referred to as a “severely behaviorally disturbed, mildly intellectually disabled” (“SGLVG” in Dutch) facility.

Whether people with intellectual disabilities / intellectually disabled people themselves prefer person-first or identity-first language, I do not know. Most autistic people prefer identity-first language, reasoning autism is an integral part of who they are. I, personally, don’t really have a preference. What matters to me is not the language you use to describe me, but the way you treat me. In this respect, whether you refer to my current care home’s population as having intensive support needs or displaying challenging behavior or as behaviorally disturbed, I do not care. The euphemistic approach here (“intensive support needs”), after all, does not do anything to change the staff’s attitudes towards us.

7 thoughts on “People First?: Issues Surrounding the Language of Disability #AtoZChallenge

    1. Well, yes, that too, but more importantly, the people it concerns should have a say in what they’re called. I mean, like I said, the majority of autistic adults prefer identity-first language (“autistic person” or even “autistic” as a noun rather than “person with autism”). This, on the surface, does not sound respectful, as it puts the disability first, but if it is what someone prefers, that should be honored.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. We are now supposed to say “people experiencing homelessness” as opposed to the homeless, but they are still out there on the street, unhoused, often harassed, and generally uncared for…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My point exactly. While language matters to a degree, it isn’t what primarily changes attitudes, especially not (and I should have made that clear in my post) when the preferred language is decided upon by the majority rather than the marginalized minority (be this autistics, people with intellectual disabilities or people experiencing homelessness).

      Liked by 1 person

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