Disability and American Semantics

By David Morstad

It’s been nearly a year since Lydia Brown posted a very well-written piece titled, “The Significance of Semantics: Person-First Language: Why It Matters” on her blog, Autistic Hoya. I had missed it at the time but, thanks to a link from a friend, I had the pleasure of reading it today. I highly recommend it.

When it comes to the person-first language debate in disabilities, the autistic community has always been a bit of an outlier for exactly the reasons Ms. Brown outlines.

There’s no general consensus.

In fact, there is a fundamental difference of opinion among those most directly affected. That’s understandable. This is not a relatively clear-cut instance, e.g., ending the R word. At its core, it’s a discussion about the conceptualization of a disability and its relationship to personal identity.  

“It is impossible to affirm the value and worth of an Autistic person without recognizing his or her identity as an Autistic person. Referring to me as ‘a person with autism,’ or ‘an individual with ASD’ demeans who I am because it denies who I am.”

– Lydia Brown

One of the most interesting parts of the post, in my opinion, is the introduction of Spanish language into the discussion. It serves to highlight an important point in all this:

This person-first language discussion is a uniquely American discourse.

We love to quibble about language in this country and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. One could argue that the process serves to deepen the meaning and nuance of language and, in so doing, enrich our cultural expression.

But it is a little funny. Can you imagine a “chairman” vs. “chairwoman” vs. “chairperson” debate in Spanish or French? Keep in mind that, in those languages, even inanimate objects have gender! And, for what it’s worth, the word “chair” is feminine in both. I don’t know what that means, and I don’t think any native speaker of those languages really cares.

I would suggest that the ultimate goal of the language debate should not be to arrive at an agreed-upon conclusion, but rather to keep the dialogue going for as long as possible. Some words are left behind, others are adopted; some are pejorative and fall out of favor, only to be later reclaimed by an in-group as a preferred self-identifier and matter of pride.

Personally, I hope the debate over words goes on forever.

And, if science fiction is an accurate predictor of the future (and we all know that it is) that’s exactly what will happen. There’s a scene in the movie “Aliens” in which Sigourney Weaver’s character leaps up in anger and shouts, “Nobody told me there would be an android on board!” Bishop (the android) looks at her and calmly states, “I prefer the term ‘artificial person’ actually.”

Do you really think this will ever stop?

One Response

  1. What a fine post! Thanks for sharing with us, and passing along Lydia’s piece. I had not seen it, and am pleased to know it now.

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