A large part of disability etiquette is policing your words. It is about being respectful and courteous in what you say. It is very easy to use the wrong words, to phrase a statement in the wrong way. A small slip up, a small shift in connotation can drastically alter a message. At the same time it is important to police your reaction to those words and phrases. Everyone has their own unique perspective of their disability and stigma that influences their reactions.
The disability community is very aware of the negative effects of words and phrasing. The “normal” community, with some exceptions, is often unaware of this effect. Sometimes normally harmless words and phrases become insults to those with disabilities. The person-first versus disability-first argument is one of many phrasing etiquette issues. It is an issue of possession I-am versus I-have. Using ‘I am’ (ex. I am autistic) puts the disability in possession of the person. Using ‘I have’ (ex. I have autism) puts the person in possession of the disability. Putting person first also places the individual higher in value than his/her disability.
Two words that have made a small shift in connotation are disturbed and suffering. The word, disturbed, is a description of emotional distress. However, some are applying the word as a identity label. A person’s identity is defined by emotional distress. The word, suffering, is a way to describe that a individual is experiencing harmful effects. However, some are applying it as a possession label. The person’s suffering is in control of his/her life.
Laura MacKenzie loves to learn about the world around her. She adores animals and has a dog and cat. She is always observing, thinking, and analyzing. Her goal is to become a police consultant/instructor on community relations and disability. Laura is enrolled in the Advanced Certificate in Disability Studies here at CUNY SPS.