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Words Can Impact Perception
October 8, 2013
Words Can Impact Perception

Posted by Sue Stellick

Language is powerful. Words impact perception and have the ability to convey respect or minimalize people. People with disabilities are often reduced to their disabilities and not thought of as people first. After the recent kidnapping and rescue of a teenage girl with a developmental disability, the participants of the CHAI Works day program wanted to make sure that their voices were heard. CHAI Works wrote a letter and sent it to Boston area media outlets advocating that people-first language always be used.

To Whom It May Concern:

We, the participants of JF&CS CHAI Works community-based day program are writing on behalf of individuals who have special needs. In our program, we have a current events group each morning where we discuss the news. On the morning of Thursday September 12, 2013 we discussed a story about a missing teen girl from Medfield, Massachusetts. This girl happened to have developmental delays, and we think that the media could have been more respectful in the way they described her. Most media outlets ran stories titled “developmentally disabled teen missing,” focusing first on her disability and not on the fact that she was a missing teen girl who also had a disability. We were happy to find out she was found safe, but the story began a discussion about person-first language. We think that she should have been first described as a missing girl, and only after first recognizing her as a missing human being, then include details about the fact that she had special needs in the same way they list other physical descriptors.

We would like to remind the media and hope that they remember that people with special needs are still people first. While it may seem like a small difference to include the disability after establishing that the individual is a person first, it is important to acknowledge the power of language, and word order does impact what people take away from your programming.  As a media outlet your job is to inform the public, and our hope is that you use people-first language to consistently remind the general public that people with special needs are not defined by those needs. We think that it is very important to establish that an individual is a person with a disability, and not a disabled person. We are not our disabilities. We may have autism, Down’s syndrome, cerebral palsy, or other special needs, but we do not suffer from these disabilities. It is just a part of who we are.

We are people with friends, hobbies, interests, skills, jobs, and we also have disabilities. Having a disability is not the most important thing about us, there are many things about us that make up who we are as people. During the day CHAI Works participants learn new things and volunteer in our local communities. To name a few, we volunteer at food pantries to help families in need, with Meals on Wheels where we deliver food to seniors, and help serve lunch at a day shelter for women who are homeless or poor. We volunteer at many other locations in the Greater Boston area as well.
 
In the future we hope that people will respect our wishes to be defined first as people.

Sincerely,

CHAI Works Participants

Sue StellickSue is the Director of Day Programs for CHAI Works and has been with the program since 2006. She has worked in the disability field for over 13 years. Sue has worked with people with developmental, physical, neurological, and mental health disabilities. Sue’s expertise is in vocational support, day program development, service coordination, and community inclusion. She also has experience in the direct service and coordination of in-home communication and behavioral therapies. Sue is a rehabilitation counselor who received a BS and MS from the University of Wisconsin.

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