Think saying “a disabled child” and “a child with a disability” are the same thing? They’re not.

Have you ever looked in the mirror and told yourself, “You’re so beautiful,” or “I love you?” This is a common exercise to improve self esteem. And it works! Because our language greatly affects how we think about ourselves and the world around us.

You know how powerful language is because you’ve thought about the language you use with your child. You know that the words you use affect how they see themselves and their world.

One commonly debated topic on language in the disability community is people-first language versus identity-first language. People-first language is when you refer to the person first, so you may say you have “a child with a disability,” or they “have cerebral palsy” or they “have Down syndrome.” Identity-first language is when you refer to an identity first. So for example, you may say you have “a disabled child,” or they’re “deaf” or “autistic.”

People-first language developed because many people with disabilities felt that non-disabled people saw ONLY their disability. They were treated like their disability was more important than them being a human being. People-first language was developed to say, “Hey! I’m a person first! With basic human needs just like everybody else! I still need love, purpose, and dignity in my life! My disability is an important part of me, but it’s not the ONLY thing about me.”

On the other hand, many people prefer identity-first language because they feel it is a central part of their identity. To them, their disability permeates every aspect of their life, and they can’t separate themselves from it, so they prefer their language to reflect that.

I notice that often, people with very visible disabilities prefer people-first language because non-disabled people see only their disability and assume that it defines them. People-first language reminds people to see them as a person who is more than just their disability.

In contrast, I find that people with invisible disabilities tend to prefer identity first language. They feel people ignore their disability at times and expect them to perform the same as their non-disabled peers without any accommodations. Identity-first language reminds people that they need to do things differently.

But this is no way a set rule. There are so many people who do not fit this mold, and the best course of action if you’re ever unsure is to ask. Pro tip: You don’t have to ask the second you walk up to someone with a disability. But, if you’re in conversation and you find yourself about to use person-first or identity-first language, simply ask.

This is only one tiny example of language preferences around disability. There are so many more out there and I will cover a lot more in my upcoming course, which should be launching in the next few months, so watch for it!

The language we use really affects how we view ourselves and the world. Therefore, we need to be aware of what language we’re using and mindfully choose our language based one what we want to believe and what we want the world to believe.

Language can change the world.

I would love to hear your and your child’s story about language and disability in your lives. Do the two of you prefer person-first or identity-first language? Are there any other aspects of language and disability that are important to you?

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