Why adopting proper verbiage is insufficient in combating ableism

By Archibald Cantor Brechin, an intern at the Global Autism Project

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words are brittle chimes in a wind storm.” This creative take of the old English adage first impressed itself on my psyche at the tender age of 9 when I heard it on the popular 90’s television children series, Hey Arnold. Although cognizant of its original intent, later upon years of internal debate and familiarizing myself with the academic literature regarding affect and emotions, I now know the reality is much more nuanced.

By now human service professionals and laypeople alike have woken up to the stark reality that the words we choose in addressing one another have strong reverberating impacts on our target audience. Words are incredibly powerful and can be used as both balms and bludgeons. However even today far too many people flippantly throw words around in blatant disregard for their potential debilitating effects. Throughout high school and middle school I was shocked at hearing groups of well-educated young men and women carelessly throw around epithets such “that’s so gay” “she’s a retard” or “your being such a spazz”. Although those slurs were not directed towards me, being the sensitive individual I was, they pierced me like a poisonous arrow. Such blatant disregard for appropriate terminology as used in colloquial discourse is why open debates about language are important to any social justice cause and the neurodiversity movement is no exception.

For years we have been instructed by well-meaning governmental and educational institutions to refer to people with learning disabilities and/or mental health conditions as “person with Downs Syndrome” or “Someone who uses a wheelchair” etc. The intent behind this is to avoid stigmatization and decree negative stereotyping by emphasizing our shared humanity over an arbitrary diagnostic label; undoubtedly a noble goal. However, many self-advocates take pride in their identity and prefer to emphasize it rather. This can present a confusing dilemma. Even I, as an emerging self-advocate, frequently find myself tongue-tied caught between two ideologies; the one I grew up knowing and believing and that of my fellow self-advocates. As a gracious person leery to offend anyone unless making a valid point, I often spend up to five minutes scrambling for the mot just only to paralyze myself in a semantics impasse.

Debates regarding the appropriate usage of language in addressing minority groups are not just persnickety oversensitive attempts at moral policing but are necessary for society to evolve into a place where everyone is welcome and validated. The person first vs identity first debate is but one of many semantic wars humanity engages in with the intent of amending past injustices and restoring the dignity of marginalized populations. As an autistic self-advocate and language enthusiast, this dichotomy fascinates me for myriad reasons. To commence the conversation, I’ll start off by imparting my personal stance. For me it doesn’t matter if someone addresses me as “an autistic young man” or “young man with autism” as long as they address me with respect and affirm my dignity as a person. I am proud of my diagnosis and my community and I stand by any phraseology that gives credence to both our shared humanity and neurodiversity. However, in deference to my fellow self-advocates, I fully support the “identity first language” movement as it demonstrates.

I started off this blog post with one trite and cliché phrase and will end it with another. “Actions speak louder than words”. At the end of the day, politically correct language is pointless if our beliefs and actions still belay the same ignorance, disrespect, and dehumanization as contingent upon our choice of diction. Although it is important to carefully monitor our use of language to reflect the preferences of our target audience, I believe it is even more imperative to follow what world renown listening expert Dr. Bommelje calls the platinum rule by “treating people the way THEY want to be treated”. For example, it would be contradictory for someone to claim the moral high ground by zealously adhering to person first language protocols while simultaneously acting towards them in a manner that belays contempt and condescension.

To succinctly summarize my thoughts regarding the person first vs identity first semantics war and impart advice. When in doubt ask. Just as no two people with autism are alike neither are our preferences of how we would like to be referred. Inquiries give people agency making us feel as if our voices, experiences, opinions, and unique perspectives genuinely matter to you. It’s way more powerful than blind adherence to any arbitrary politically correct semantic algorithm. Asking each individual perfectly affirms ASAN’s official statement “nothing about us without us”. Personally it does not matter how someone else addresses me as long as the intent behind it was kind and respectful. However to promoting the neurodiversity movement, I side with the majority of my fellow self-advocates and champion the use of identity first language in official discourse pertaining to Autism.

Although I understand the intent by the person first language movement in underscoring our shared humanity and not confining us to diagnostic schemas, by not giving due credence to our identity as autistic people, many well intentioned individuals inadvertently pathologize the very condition they wish to humanize. Thus, by reclaiming that simple eight letter adjective from those who previously used it to demean us we therefore unshackle it from decades of ignorance and negativity and imbue it with the many positive connotations it deserves. For far too long the discourse regarding autism has been shaped not by autistic individuals themselves but by teams of neurologists and psychiatrists hoping to cure an essential facet of our identity. We view our autism not as a neurological aberration for us to cure or overcome in a quest to attain humanity but as one of the myriad wonderful manifestations of human diversity itself. Many individuals on the spectrum including Temple Grandin, Steven Shore, and John Elder Robinson exceeded their potential and made incredible contributions to humanity not in spite of their autism but largely because of it. This is the sentiment my colleagues and I try to convey in our promotion of the use of identity first language.

For this reason, I firmly endorse our organization’s founder and CEO, Molly Ola Pinney and her choice of words during her TED talk. From the short time that I have known her I can attest that If anyone cares about affirming the human dignity of autistic people, it is her.

A few final thoughts; when thinking about how to address someone, always be conscientious of the intent and context behind not only your choice of words but those of others. Naturally, people should refrain from carelessly using superannuated clinical terms such as “insane” “retarded” “spastic” “imbecile” etc. as they convey insensitivity, ignorance and hostility. However, most situations that I have encountered in which incorrect language was used, it was out of simple ignorance of the correct term, not a malicious attempt to dehumanize the person referenced. Additionally, before deconstructing and criticizing others use of language (unless it is blatantly offensive) make sure you yourself are cognizant of the semantic preferences of the target group. Instead of demonizing people who use politically incorrect or improper language, seize the opportunity to educate them on respectful terminology. Moreover, if you think the person is using that term intentionally but not in a derogatory manner ask why? Something along the lines of “hey I noticed you referred to Benjamin as an autistic young adult, would you mind explaining that to us?” goes much farther than hanging an otherwise well-intentioned person in effigy.

Onward and upward!