I want to keep writing this week about the meanings behind person-first language, and about some of the implications of this kind of language in terms of best educational outcomes for students.
The emphasis for person-first language has been on not saying, “Ishmael is disabled,” but rather “Ishmael has a disability;” not “Christopher is autistic,” but rather “Christopher has autism,” or “Christopher has ASD.” The political reason for this – what I’ve heard said, derogatorily, as “PC” – is that no one is disabled, that nobody is defined or essentialized by his or her disability. However, this also means that a disability becomes something that you have – we have transitioned from talking about disability as something that you are to talking about it in terms of something that you own. Disability, in this sense, becomes property.
On the other hand, dis-ability means quite literally the absence of a property, of not having the ability to do or to grasp something. So a disability becomes something that a person has that is marked by a lacking or an absence. (This makes me think back to my Collaborating with Families class, and how many mothers of persons with disabilities talked about their feelings of guilt and of loss when their children with severe disabilities were born.) My student Baldur has a physical disability, it is something that he owns, but he has it based on the criterion of what he cannot do – walk down stairs without assistance, run for long distances, etc. So why should we talk about his disability as if it is something of value that he has, hung around his neck like an albatross?
What does this look like in the classroom or in the community? I still want to be thinking about disability as something that is context-dependent, and therefore not a permanent or unchanging state of being. But this perspective gets challenged by thinking about disability as a property. I am responsible for my property – for my clothes and books and food and school supplies. I also have certain rights because of my property – I can tell a teacher if someone steals my pencil, I can use the money I earn at work for snacks off the snack cart, I can shoot someone for breaking into my house. But then, what rights and responsibilities do I have for my disability? Thinking about disability in this sense gives students a basis for advocating on their own behalf because they can point to their rights and responsibilities that they have because of their disabilities. On the other hand, this also means that students with disabilities can’t easily “pass” from one environment to a different one and leave their disability behind; it becomes something, something that they have ownership over, that they have to carry with them from place to place. And so, in this way, disability, which we thought we had demystified through the practice of person-first language, becomes reified as property.