Editor's Note: February is Jewish Disability Awareness & Inclusion Month, an international effort to raise awareness (#JDAIM16 on twitter). "The New Normal" will share blogs all month long about the language we use when we talk about disability. Please comment here or on our Facebook page — share with your community and join the conversation!
Does it really matter what we call people? Is terminology and language use important? By now you may think you have heard too much about person-first language, or at least the intent which is to emphasize the person and not the label. This works for most groups, although increasingly those who are autistic, or at least organizations representing them, seem to prefer the term "autistics" over "people with autism" (Read more about that debate here).
So what does it really matter?
Labels and diagnostic criteria are, in the U.S., vital for inclusion in most publicly funded programs and in many cases, those that are private. We need to know who you are to see if you can get what we have. While this is not true in some other countries, categorical eligibility is the norm in the U.S. We bemoan the fact, but it is real.
I tend to think of the issue more along the lines of respect — respect for the person, for his or her humanity and dignity, rather than categorization. Our life experiences and the isolation of many people with disabilities forces us into this categorization by fostering a "they are different, they are the other" way of thinking, a we-they, us-them dichotomy.
Some of this may go away as people are more included in our communities. I recently had an undergraduate student say to me: "She is just like me! She has a boyfriend, likes to go to the movies and to go shopping!” A wonderful observation by 21-year-old, and a sad statement that up to the experience she referenced, she had never interacted in a meaningful way with a person (with an intellectual disability) up to that point.
It would be easy to blame my student but I must say: It’s not her fault! We, all of us, never set up the situations where people with and without disabilities were together for regular activities, so of course, she never saw “them." Or got to know “them.” They were in that class down the hall, on that “special bus,” in a “special” camp. Definitely “they” were not like me. Hence the need to label them, to use language that separates and differentiates them from me.
As Jewish Disability Awareness & Inclusion Month begins, let’s be conscious of language. Are our words and terms meant to respect and include people or to show that people are different, apart and in need of “special” programs and places to be? Does language force us to have people with disabilities in that separate Jewish Day School program, or excluded from the school? Do we have an Inclusion Shabbat service one week in the year and then forget that many people want to be there regularly, at holidays and on days that are not holidays?
Can we get rid of the barriers between those with and without disabilities entirely by change language? Of course not but it is a good place to start and, to borrow from Rabbi Hillel in Pirkei Avot who asks "If Not Now, when?" Jewish Disability Awareness Month is as good a place to start as anyplace.
Steven Eidelman is the H. Rodney Sharp Professor of Human Services Policy and Leadership at The University of Delaware and the faculty director of The National Leadership Consortium on Developmental Disabilities. He has worked for the last 35 years to help people with disabilities lead full lives in the community.