Helping Students Understand Person-First Language

Person first language is an important ethical matter often discussed in the field of special education and disability advocacy. The idea that the important descriptor for a person is not their disability but that the disability is something that the person has is fundamental in framing the mindset that having a disability doesn't mean that a person is less or incapable of success. It can be challenging enough to broach this subject with adults but how do we help children to understand what person first language means and why it is so important? I felt it might be helpful to share an approach with which I have had success.

First, it's important to discuss disability in general. Some people learn differently, move differently, speak differently, etc. but they still do all of those things. Even if someone is blind, they can read with braille. Someone who cannot speak may use technology or sign. Someone who uses a wheelchair to get around still gets around; just differently. Allow the child/children to share some ways that they have seen people do things differently.

Next, ask the children some things that they like to do and that are important to them. Remind them that people with disabilities like to do similar things. Reinforce the idea with them that all people want to be loved, to have friends, to play, to learn, etc.

Now, ask the children to think about some things people call people with disabilities. Be careful to direct them away from name calling but ask about types of disabilities. What do we call people who cannot see or see well? What about people who use wheelchairs? Ask the children what kinds of things people call them (students, children, boys, girls, etc.)? Ask a student with glasses, does anyone call you "glasses girl/boy"? Ask another if anyone calls them "freckle kid" or "braces girl" and so on. When students say that no one calls them that, ask if they would like it and why.

Now, tie those feelings back to the discussion of people with disabilities. It's important that when we describe people with disabilities that we remember they are also people first. Just like you are not a glasses boy or girl, you are a boy or girl with glasses, people with disabilities are people who happen to also have disabilities. We would never call someone a cancer man or a stomach flu woman. Because we know that people with disabilities are more like us than not, commit together as a class family to honor that by using person first language.

Finally, it's nice to follow up brief discussion or study on people who have disabilities and are very successful. Depending on the age group, students can research and present this information or you can share it with them. The following chart lists several common disabilities and a few of the many successful people who have or are believed to have had them:

  1. Autism Spectrum Disorders: Albert Einstein, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Vincent Philip D'onofrio (actor,) Temple Grandin (professor, inventor, author, speaker)

  2. Mood Disorders: Richard Dreyfuss and Harrison Ford (American actors,) Abraham Lincoln, Buzz Aldrin (astronaut,) Ludwig Von Beethoven

  3. Tourette's syndrome: Tim Howard and David Beckham (football/soccer players,) Dr. Samuel Johnson (writer of English literature)

  4. Spina Bifida: Robert Hansel (poet, author, Guiness Book of World's Record Holder for the world's longest consecutive wheelie,) Hank Williams Sr. and John Cougar Mellencamp (musicians,) Frida Kahlo (artist)

  5. Cerebral Palsy: Bonner Paddock (athlete who climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro,) Hermann of Reichtenau (composer and music theorist, scholar, mathematician, astronomer, and catholic saint,) Josh Blue (comedian,) Stephen Hopkins (American forefather, signer of the Declaration of Independence)

  6. Epilepsy: Vincent Van Gogh, Napoleon Bonaparte, Charles Dickens, Leonardo DaVinci, Michelangelo, Theodore Roosevelt, Socrates

  7. Dyslexia: Agatha Christie, Alexander Graham Bell, Cher, Henry Winkler, Thomas Edison, Walt Disney, Winston Churchill, Richard Branson, Orlando Bloom (actor)

  8. Hearing Impairment-Peter Townshend (musician,) Hellen Keller, Thomas Edison, Ludwig Von Beethoven, Lou Ferrigno (professional body builder, actor, physical trainer,) Marlee Matlin (actress)

  9. Club Foot: Damon Wayans (comedian and actor,) Steven George Gerrard (football/soccer player,) Dudley Moore (actor,) Freddy Sanchez (baseball player,) Mia Hamm (soccer/football player,) Kristi Yamaguchi (figure skater/olympian)

  10. Use Wheelchairs: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Stephen Hawking (Scientist/author,) John Charles Hockenberry-journalist, Teddy Pendergrass-musician

  11. Visual Impairment: Helen Keller, Stevie Wonder (musician,) Galileo Galilei, Andre Bocelli (opera singer,) Claude Monet (artist)

Because old terminology and habits are not so deeply ingrained in children, it is easier to form good habits in them. Addressing person first speech early in a way that they can understand greatly increases the likelihood that they will always speak person first and, in turn, see people first.

#personfirstlanguage #inclusion #specialeducation

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