I visited a church that had some members who were interested in creating an outreach for people with disabilities. They proudly showed me that they had removed the last row of pews to make room for wheelchairs, “The wheelchairs can all sit here together.” Because I have a good relationship with the people giving me a tour of their church I knew that they could handle a bit of teasing as an illustration of people first language. I said something to the effect of, “So the wheelchairs sit here, where do the people who use the wheelchairs get to sit?” A blank stare was the initial response. I explained that a wheelchair is not the same thing as a person who uses the wheelchair, just like a pair of shoes is not the same thing as the person who wears them. A wheelchair is not a person. A wheelchair is a mobility device. Thus we began a conversation about people first language.
People first language communicates that the person comes before a disability or impairment. “The boy in Sunday school who has autism…” and “The autistic boy in Sunday school…” are two statements about a boy who has autism. However, one of the statements puts the boy’s humanity before the impairment. “The wheelchair section” is a phrase that describes a place for wheelchairs; “the pew cutouts for people who use wheelchairs” is a phrase that describes where people who use wheelchairs for mobility may choose to comfortably sit. The humanity of the people is spoken about before their means of mobility.
People first language is more than semantics. It is a concrete way of communicating the value of another person. Using people first language guides our thoughts to first see the person, the friend, the parishioner, the neighbor, the communicant, the confirmand or the colleague and not to first see the perceived limitation.
Words matter in creating hospitable, inclusive faith communities. Children and adults who have disabilities desire to be where they are welcomed first as people, with considerations for their impairment coming secondary. The words they hear when they visit our faith communities will let them now if they are valued as people first.
The Family to Family Network is one of many places on the Internet to learn more about the importance of people first language. http://www.familytofamilynetwork.org/parent-resources/people-first-language