Remember the old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me?” Although this phrase was intended to help children cushion the sting of teasing, we all know it opened the door to hurtful and hateful remarks that left long-term psychological scars. Persons with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities are especially likely to be victims of outspoken negative stereotypes and stigma.
The manner in which words are used can make all the difference. Using person-first language is a great start. People with disabilities are people, first. They are much more than their disability; they are sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, artists, sports fans, students, gardeners. They are people with needs, hopes and dreams, just like everyone else.
Just as we would think it rude to refer to a person with cancer as “cancerous,” we should break the habit of referring to a person with a disability as “disabled or handicapped.” Making an effort to use person-first language shows that you see the person for who they are, not for their illness/disability.
One of the greatest obstacles for individuals with disabilities is often not the diagnosis itself; rather, it is the stereotypes and stigma people put on them. A disability is just one characteristic about an individual and using terms that suggest that those with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities are all the same is stereotypical. That would be like saying all people with brown eyes or dark hair are the same.
There are plenty of ways to address an individual’s needs without addressing their disability. For example, instead of saying a person is a paraplegic; say that he or she uses a wheelchair. Instead of saying, “I‘m bipolar,” say, “I have bipolar disorder.” Instead of calling yourself “a schizophrenic,” refer to yourself as “a person with schizophrenia.” When we see, or describe, a diagnosis as the most important characteristic of a person, we devalue them as an individual.
Individuals with mental illnesses and disabilities have feelings just like everyone else. When we use person-first language consistently we can help reduce the stigma, stereotypes, and discrimination sometimes associated with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities. It’s not about being politically correct; it’s about having good manners and showing respect.
Mark Twain said it best: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”