Live Into Our Language

By J.C. Mitchell

The old saying about sticks and stones and words is simply a defensive saying to help us through the hurt.  I am someone that tries to use person first language for all people living with disabilities.  It is not simply to be PC, I argue, and I understand the debate from some people about being proud of that particular part of them.  I do notice that with my son this way of talking makes people think about his disability as simply one part of his life.  According to the Arc’s website,

Our words and the meanings we attach to them create attitudes, drive social policies and laws, influence our feelings and decisions, and affect people’s daily lives and more. How we use them makes a difference. People First Language puts the person before the disability, and describes what a person has, not who a person is. Using a diagnosis as a defining characteristic reflects prejudice, and also robs the person of the opportunity to define him/herself.

I encourage everyone to err on the side of person first language, even if it feels awkward, for after a while it will seem natural, and people with developmental, mental, or physical disabilities will notice and appreciate the use as well as their caregivers. 

It is not unlike those of us who use the term “marriage equality,” rather than “gay marriage” or “same-sex marriage,” for the latter two inherently assume that the rights of the people we are fighting for are separate but equal, and we know how that it is not.  I believe it can be summed up best by the comedian Liz Feldman in 2008:

Personally, I am very excited about “gay marriage”, or as I like to call it, “marriage”.  Because I had lunch this afternoon, I didn’t have “gay lunch”.  And I parked my car, I didn’t “gay park” it. 

So I hope you see how  person-first language is not only to be PC, but that it“[…]create[s] attitudes, drive[s] social policies and laws, influence[s] our feelings and decisions, and affect[s] people’s daily lives and more” (The Arc Website)  Thus I encourage the use of people-first language and the use of the word marriage alone or the term marriage equality when we fight to include all people in the right of marriage. 

So you made it thus far and you agree, and pat yourself on the back for having tried to use this inclusive language, or perhaps you see from one community to the other why it is important to be aware of your language.  I am happy, but the challenge is about to come, especially for those who use the term “marriage equality,” but really only mean for it to include gay and lesbian people. 

Let me share a story of someone I have been getting to know.  Let us call her Anna.  She is a person I have worked with in ministry for people with disabilities.  Anna is funny, strong, and a great self-advocate.  Anna lives with cerebral palsy and utilizes a power chair.  I have been at meetings where her ride from the Access Transportation did not arrive in the time window she was given, and she starts to dial the phone in the last minute, and asks for the manager she knows by name the moment the bus is late.  I am not nearly as good as self-advocating as Anna, when things are not done in the promised time.  When I heard Anna had married, I was excited to meet him.  Women or Men who marry strong women are generally good people in my book.  Well, we live in Washington State, and thus last summer and fall we had been talking about marriage equality.  It was on the television, in the paper, and on the mouths of everyone.  However, Anna’s love--let’s call him John--also lives with CP and both require their Social Security checks to live quite simply, but if they legally marry,  they would lose approximately a quarter of their SSI.  They can have the same address, they simply cannot wed, and thus they only had a non-legal union to sustain their meager funds due them.

I finally got to meet John this weekend, and sure enough he was a delightful man who keeps up well with Anna.  She introduced me to John, and then as the self-advocate she is, she reminded me they are not legally married with disappointment and anger, for she is aware that she cannot afford the right to marry.

Imagine hearing over and over people saying “marriage equality,” but you are told if you marry we will take away your means of living.  Let us not only use our words carefully, let us truly understand we need to live into our language.  We need to expand our language and understand what true “marriage equality” would mean, and work for justice for all.

Liz Feldman Quote.jpg