Shoring up rhetorical fault lines: language matters

Earlier this year I blogged about about the fault lines between people who prefer person-first language (example: person with autism) and people who prefer identity-first language (example: autistic person). I introduced this topic as the first part of what I then hoped would be a two-part series: the first about uses of language in special education advocacy circles, and the second about a kerfuffle that went down in my other intellectual sphere, musicology. Both situations were ultimately about language and power. (If you want to read my original blog, you can find it here.) I never did get around to writing about the musicology situation, and likely won’t return to it. By the time I got my thoughts organized enough, the immediacy of the moment was gone; anything I might have had to say would have seemed needlessly reactionary. I’ll come back to it if / when my words mean more than my action. In the meantime: action is key.

But today, I want to take a moment to recognize that advocacy matters. On Friday, the organization (COPAA: Council Of Parent Attorneys and Advocates) that runs the advocacy course that I took released a public statement about use of language. When my course began last fall, we were directly instructed to use only person first language. There was no room for dissent, no room for discussion about what #ActuallyDisabled people might prefer. This public statement from COPAA is an acknowledgment that over the years, language changes, and we need to keep up. Person first language was seen in the past as a way to advance social justice; it was used by well-meaning people who wanted to honor shared humanity. But in the past several decades, a number of disability rights organizations and persistent activists have argued for identity first language, and COPAA now recognizes that person first language can’t be the default. If you’re curious, the statement also includes resources that argue for both sides of the argument. It also includes a section about what language to never use (such as the “r” word). But here’s the key point: “Presenters and writers need to know what language and terms the community they are speaking/writing about feels is appropriate and respectful.” With this statement, COPAA recommends that its member attorneys and advocates practice flexible language use; honor individual preferences; and check their own privilege when advocating on behalf of others.

I have no idea how long folks within COPAA have been talking about these particular language issues. But I do know this: a few of us pushed back HARD this year, and this resolution came out about a month after a group of us sent a lengthy message to the board about the pedagogy in our course, including a strongly-worded section about the use of language. Perhaps we were a strand of a much longer conversation. Perhaps we were the tipping point. In any case, I call this a win!



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