Sisters highlight problem of allies of people with disabilities not respecting language preferences

A pen and notepad with the words, "Words Have Power"
Allies: Beware Talking Over People

In the ever-evolving world we live in, it is hard to always know the correct thing to say or do. This becomes even more complex in the area of personal identities and language preferences. However, the overall idea is quite simple – respect. If an individual makes it known that they prefer to be referred to or spoken to a certain way, it is generally best to respect that desire and do so. Sometimes you might not fully understand why the individual has that desire, but they still have the right to have their choice and identity respected.

Recently the magazine Everyday Feminism addressed the rise of this issue among self-proclaimed allies of the disability rights movement in the article, “5 reasons why we police disabled people’s language (and why we need to stop).” Co-authors Caley and Creigh Farinas, sisters and disability rights activists, argue that, “Abled people seem to believe that they know what disabled people should call themselves more than actual disabled people.”

The sisters identify the “movement against pejorative or limiting labeling of disabled people by professionals and peers alike,” which overall is considered a positive aspect of the disability rights movement, yet state that it has unfortunately been “hacked to the point that instead of amplifying the voices of disabled people, abled people attempting to be allies are overwriting them.”

The article uses the example of Caley’s personal experiences. Caley is autistic, and prefers identity-first language (in comparison to person-first language). Unfortunately, however, Caley has had multiple occasions where her language preferences were not respected by someone who thought person-first language was a more correct way to refer to her – despite her requests otherwise.

Caley and Creigh address several common justifications often heard by people who speak over people with disabilities; including “I’m advocating for the way I want someone with a disability to be viewed,” “Everyone uses a certain type of language in my profession – It’s best practice,” and “The language practice they use is a horrible way to think of yourself.” Caley and Creigh go on to explain how all of these phrases, no matter how well-intentioned or thought-out, are disrespectful to people with disabilities when they are used to justify ignoring someone’s personal language preferences. The article sums this idea up perfectly in the statement: “There’s been this backlash against being ‘politically correct,’ but honestly, referring to a person they way they want to be referred to shouldn’t be controversial – that’s just common courtesy.”

As with anything that involves identity-based language, from gender to sexuality to disability, the best rule of thumb is to ask individuals what they specifically prefer – and then respect that.

Caley and Creigh offer two final suggestions for helping to address this issue: “Respect disabled people’s language choices…[and] Be an advocate, but seek permission first.”

Emily Pate is a third-year student at Seattle University interested in Strategic Communications, learning Spanish, and working with non-profits. Her work for Rooted In Rights is focused on discussing current events in the community of people with disabilities. Her experience previous to Rooted In Rights includes writing broadcasts for KBOO radio in Portland, OR, and managing a neighborhood blog in the Seattle community. In addition to work, Emily enjoys drawing, spending time with her friends and family, and backpacking.