This place matters

This place matters

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Me first

Tomorrow, July 26th, my awesome dad will be at Mall A on Cleveland's Public Square to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Dad's been working for the rights of people with disabilities for the better part of that 20 years, and I can't tell you how proud I am to call that man Dad. 
Though people at the time groused about the cost, the scope, but I believe, as Shirley Davis has said, "People with disabilities represent a critical talent pool that is underserved and underutilized." 
I've been meaning to talk about people-first language for a bit, and now seems a good time. If you were at church a couple weeks ago, you've heard this spiel, but you'll survive :).
So, this confession is less pleasant every time I give it. But I feel like I have to give it, be a voice for people who are dismally under-heard. Also, I have a martyr complex.
As many of ya'll know, I have bipolar disorder. I still cringe a little inside whenever I say those words. Even though I've been "out of the closet" as a person with a mental illness for many years now, sharing this detail of my life still feels like taking all my clothes off in a roomful of strangers.

I am not bipolar. I'm Brigid. I'm a sister and a wife and a writer and I'm adorable. I'm a person. Does anyone here have arthritis? When you developed arthritis, did you turn into arthritis? To those of you who have loved ones with cancer, would you ever say "Oh, my grandma is cancer." The so-called "politically correct" label for folks like me is "person with a mental illness." That's kind of inconvenient to say. It feels clumsy in your mouth, you have to plan ahead to construct a sentence around it, it just takes longer to say. But maybe that's a good thing. Maybe, for people with mental illness, or people with disabilities in general, it does us good to have to slow down and think about the person before we apply a label. You know how Ghandi said:

Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,

That's why people first language matters. Not because it's popular or polite, but because the more we say "PERSON with a disability," the more we treat people with disabilities like they're fully people.

Amanda Baggs, a woman with autism who is an advocate for the rights of people with developmental disabilities, says that most people see folks with disabilities as "unpersons." She says that "being an unperson means being expendable and interchangable with all the other unpersons of the world." Using people-first language, however clunky, may be the first step in our being better able to see people with disabilities as people, instead of as disabilities.  


Cap'n Ergo "XL+1" Jinglebollocks said...

Brilliant. Even better th' 2nd time 'round!! Thanks for posting this, I've been thinking about your sermon on & off o'er th last fortnight...

Anonymous said...

So in the crazy world of lexicography can people be polar or monopolar or whatever the term would be? Many people I know and love have conditions in life and I still worry that they'll be seen as a diagnosis and not as a person.