Academic journal article International Journal of Whole Schooling

People-First and Competence-Oriented Language

Academic journal article International Journal of Whole Schooling

People-First and Competence-Oriented Language

Article excerpt

Some stories enhance life; Others degrade it. So we must be careful About the stories we tell, About the ways we define Ourselves and other people.

--Burton Blatt (1987, p.142)

A plethora of political volleyball regarding the use of specific derogatory terms (e.g., the retarded) recently made headlines throughout the United States. Often movies are made without concern for their portrayal of persons with disabilities using stereotypes and stigma supporting language in the script. Many of us in special education, as well as individuals with disabilities, are dismayed at the lack of sensitivity surrounding the use of such terminology and might be wondering whatever happened to the people-first language movement. Although the movement may have had a positive effect on a generation of individuals associated with persons with disabilities, it appears as if our work is not yet done.

This paper reviews people-first language, its beginnings, its current status, and how we can promote it and the use of competence oriented language. This article provides guidelines to promote the effective use of people-first and competence-oriented language. Our hope is to educate others so they use language that empowers students with disabilities.

Competence-oriented based language is aligned to the people-first language movement. Smith, Salend, and Ryan (2001) defined competence-oriented language and interactions as "... positive language that shows acceptance of students with disabilities and provides a classroom environment where they can flourish" (p. 21). Competence-oriented language and interactions promote the use of language that focuses on the abilities and skills of a person instead of his or her disability or deficits. It is having positive interactions with, or about, persons with disabilities instead of negative ones.

Background on the use of People-First and Competence-Oriented Language

People-first language is the philosophy and practice of referring to an individual first rather than referring to a disability and then the person (e.g., the disabled or autistic person) when writing and speaking in order to minimize bias or stereotypes (Snow, 2005). Individuals are endowed with multiple characteristics, but too often people with disabilities are labeled as or referred to by their disability (Dinerstein, 2007; Michailakis, 2003). Hodgson, Hughes and Lambert (2005) conducted an exploratory study of 32 individuals with disabling genetic conditions and their advocates in Melbourne, Australia. Participants responded to a questionnaire regarding the terms they felt were "offensive or unsuitable" when referring to persons with disabilities (pp. 416-417). The following terms were reported as most offensive by respondents: retarded (94%), mental retardation (81%), handicapped person (69%), followed by disabled person (38%), intellectual disabilities (13%), and person with a disability (0%). Through the questionnaire, respondents revealed a preference for terms that aligned with people-first language.

Heatherton, Kleck, Hebl and Hull (2003) identified the devaluation of those perceived as "different" and noted the profound repercussions both for individuals and for society. Old, outdated labels, phrases, and names can hurt; they perpetuate myths about people and portray them in demeaning and derogatory ways (Hadley & Brodwin, 1988; Lynch, Thuli, & Groombridge, 1994). Shapiro, Margolis, and Anderson (1989-1990) wrote that "Disabilities are often used to make odious comparisons, further perpetuating negative images of persons with disabilities" (p. 89). Stereotypes influence how people think about, feel about, and act/react to others (Heatherton et al., 2003). A person with a disability may also internalize negative stereotypes and labels (Sartre, 1946, 1965), resulting in a diminished self-esteem or belief in competence.

The use of labels such as retarded can be viewed as a form of bullying. …

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