Language is divisive. Regardless of whatever the intention may be, the impact of our words can be powerful. In libraries, we often find ourselves reflecting on the words we use for special populations, especially regarding the disability community. But even the words “disability” and “special populations” have connotations and references that may be positive or negative to different groups of people. As our profession continues to expand awareness on diversity and inclusion issues in libraries, we remember language and identity is a big part of the conversation, especially for people with disabilities.
Person First vs. Identity First
You may have heard of the phrase “Person First Language.” Person First Language puts the person before the disability, so that the disability is no longer the primary and defining characteristic of the person. For example, instead of saying “disabled person,” supporters of Person First Language will say “person with a disability.” Those who prefer Person First Language emphasize that the value and worth of the individual is more important than the disability, and that Person First Language is more respectful of the person with disabilities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is one agency that advocates for Person First Language, making this communication guide available as a resource.
You may have also heard of the phrase “Identity First Language” or have seen the hashtag movement #SayTheWord. Contrary to Person First Language, Identity First Language puts the disability first. For example, instead of saying “person with autism,” proponents of Identity First Language would say “autistic person.” Those who prefer Identity First Language take pride in disability and claim the label, recognizing that the disability or disorder is part of who they are. Annie Elainey is a Youtube vlogger who talks about disability, identity, language, and ableism. Her video about Disability Identity and Language is a comprehensive overview of the topic from an Identity First Language point of view.
More Than Words
Conversations around language and identity go beyond Person First versus Identity First. There is a vast amount of information out there about disability language—so much so that academic communities at Syracuse University and the National Center on Disability of Journalism have published a Disability Language Style Guide and an Introductory Guide to Disability Language and Empowerment with specific recommendations about what words their communities prefer. You will often see the r-word referenced in these guides. Nearly the entire disability community advocates for the end of the R-word. To learn more, When Is It Okay to Say the R-Word? is a powerful look into the use of the word in common everyday language.
Those of us who partner with teachers and local schools may also have heard of the term “special needs.” Many of our local school districts have special education departments staffed with special education teachers. So, “special needs” is often heard in those circles. As it has been explained to me by parents and teachers, the term “special needs” may be more commonly accepted when referring to a young child, as opposed to using it to refer to an adult. However, this can vary greatly depending on what region of the county you are from. Alternatively, there are many who feel strongly that the term “special needs” should not be used, with the mindset that no needs are special—just different.
And then there’s ableism. Ableism is the discrimination or prejudice against people who have disabilities. Ableism can take the form of an idea, a stereotype, an attitude, or an assumption. An example of ableist language would be using words such as “insane” or “lame” without considering the context and the history of these words in the disability community. For those of us who do not identity as disabled, we may not even know what we are saying is ableist. But the truth is that ableist language does matter, even if it’s casual ableism.
This is a lot to take in. So, what are the implications for libraries? When we consider customer service, for example, how can librarians be inclusive in their interactions without ostracizing or excluding? When meeting new patrons, I always make sure that I ask what the person refers to be called and how they would like to be referred to. Go one step further and ask the person’s name. It’s important that we recognize each other’s humanity.
How might this information affect how libraries promote programs? For marketing, I often insert phrases like “all abilities,” “inclusive,” “accessible,” and “welcoming of all differences” into my program descriptions. These are words and phrases that have meaning to the disability community. If it makes sense to call out a specific audience, such as children with disabilities or children with autism, I may include it. However, I understand that by including this descriptor, some caregivers may be turned off by this language. If you have developed a rapport with families with children with disabilities in your community, ask them how they would prefer programs for their children are identified in the library’s program guide. This might provide you with an opportunity to revisit and revise your program descriptions.
Ultimately, language is not one-size-fits all. Not everyone will agree on everything. And we have to be okay with that. But what librarians should do is focus on the impact of our words, rather than just our intention. We must constantly educate ourselves, challenge our preconceived notions, and step outside of ourselves to learn about and listen to other people’s perspectives. We can’t and shouldn’t assume we always have the right words. And even if we think we know what those words are, they may not be. So, choose your words wisely.
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Today’s guest blogger is Renee Grassi. Renee is proud to be an active ALSC member. Renee was a member of the ALSC Committee for Special Populations and their Caregivers and one of the founding Board Members of Illinois’s Targeting Autism Initiative. She was also one of the founding members of SNAILS—an Illinois networking group dedicated to developing more accessible libraries to children and teens with disabilities. As a former ALSC blogger, Renee considers herself an advocate for inclusion and accessibility in libraries. Renee is currently the Youth Services Manager at Dakota County Library System in Dakota County, Minnesota. You can connect with her on her website and on Twitter at @MissReneeDomain.