Clarifying thoughts on word choice

08/20/2013 6:29 PM

08/20/2013 6:29 PM

I’ve heard from several people who told me I was being wishy-washy or politically correct (a term I’m not fond of) with my column today on the concept of ‘People First Langage.’

In a nutshell, ‘People First’ suggests that you focus on the person, not his or her disability, in referring to them. Hence, “woman with mental illness” instead of “mentally ill woman” or “child with autism,” not “autistic child.”

I’ve heard those suggestions many times, and there are many who believe those constructions are meaningful and empowering. But on the other hand, there are also lots of people who disagree vehemently.

My overall point wasn’t as clear as it should have been, perhaps. I don’t think one can make many blanket statements on behalf of any community of people.

True, I doubt you’ll find almost anyone arguing for once commonly-used terms that are clearly archaic and now considered offensive. “Retarded” or “colored” are two obvious examples.

But there’s a lot of dissent among people within groups about terminology, and journalists simply need to tread carefully and discuss that language with the people it applies to. I know people who prefer either “African-American” or “black” to describe themselves, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

You just can’t make overall statements about “rules” when it comes to something so inherently variable and subjective.


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