Responsible Reporting: The Importance of People First Language

At the close of last month, I wrote a post about people first language  in part to honor Autism Awareness month, but instigated by frequent use in the media of inaccurate terms that fail to place importance on a person rather than a special need. It’s difficult to change common vernacular, and as my sister pointed out, people first language can feel unnecessarily wordy when trying to convey a thought.

But it’s an imperative step towards eliminating discrimination against disability and creating a culture focused on the individual contributions a person can make rather than the limitations they may face.

We are all aware of the power that the media has in framing cultural trends. Society is a slightly skewed reflection of our media and, in reality, it also works in reverse. Journalists, however loosely you choose to interpret the term, have a responsibility to report ethically. I understand the business of journalism, but I feel strongly that these journalists should create with the expectation that they represent a community.

Last Friday, May 3rd, I saw an article on the NBC 15 homepage. (WMTV is the local NBC affiliate in Madison, WI). Tim Elliott, co-anchor of the Morning Show, does a segment called Tim’s Travels. I always find the pieces interesting and entertaining, as it highlights different areas and characters that make Wisconsin the proverbial life of the Midwest party. The May 3rd article featured Sam Brickman, a man with autism, creating an impact in his community through his art. The article was titled, Tim’s Travels: Autistic Artist.

Without revisiting the in depth argument for the importance of people first language, the idea that this man was being recognized because he had autism and not because he was an artist was frustrating. And because it’s me, I said so.

I sent the following Tweet: … – How disappointing, @nbc15_madison. Sam is an artist with autism, not an autistic artist. Use people first language.

One can argue that because Twitter and other social media outlets have given the ability for immediate, opinionated voices to EVERYONE, it has caused us to have entitled expectations that we must be heard.

But because Twitter and every other social media outlet HAS given us the ability for immediate, opinionated voices we can make direct connections. Tim sent back this tweet moments later:

@the_otherlisa sorry lisa! hope you enjoyed the story though. it was a good one 🙂

And then followed it up by changing the headline to Tim’s Travels: Artist with Autism.

This isn’t a post to garner accolades or laud a triumph. And if you read on, you realize that there’s a point in this story where my foot has found itself firmly in my mouth…yet again. It’s simply a post to encourage. If you know something is wrong, speak up. It might instigate  change.

And it might instigate an argument, but at least you’ll have something to stand on.

So, the part where I didn’t know when to stop.

I didn’t recognize the change had been made and responded with another tweet a few hours later. Nothing nasty, just another strong worded diatribe from my soap box:

@thetimreport It was a great story, undermined by the lack of people first language. Media has a loud voice, it should be used responsibly.

Once I stomped off the box, threw my blinders in the corner in a pretentious rage, I realized that he had made the change.

Thanks Tim Elliott and WMTV, NBC 15 for recognizing the importance of people first language in the media (and politely ignoring my second, ignorant tweet).


That Autistic Kid: The Importance of People First Language

Occasionally I watch TV of questionable value. It happens when too much PBS or Ken Burn’s documentaries have me fearing I’ve prematurely aged by thirty years. While watching The Voice the other night, I heard a contestant make the statement, “I work with autistic kids.”

Hmmm, do you?

Then you really should know better than to refer to your students as “autistic kids.”  Respecting the different abilities of others requires the recognition that, first and foremost, they are human beings. Special needs or diagnosis are secondary to that fact. People first language is a big step towards creating a culture where everyone is accepted.

Critics claim over-sensitivity or the dangers of rigid political correctness that can cause everyone to be tentative but consider all of the personality traits or mental faculties that you have but wouldn’t want to be your defining quality.

List 10 characteristics about yourself that have a negative connotation. I’ll start:

  • Irrational
  • Indecisive
  • Argumentative
  • Critical

Well, you get the idea…

By making a list of “negative characteristics”, I’m not implying that special needs are a bad thing. I don’t think that and would like to believe that the rest of the world does not either, but the reality is much different.  The goal of this post is to work to change those pervasive ideas.

Go back to your list. Even if you weren’t able to come up with 10 things, if you listed more than one, it is a clear example of the layers that we carry. We are many things, so characterizing a person by a single element, like a special need, is narrow-minded, However, while putting these labels on people is negligent, each person should be defined. By their preferences, morals, opinions, views – defined not judged. We are who we are because of these things and should accept that reality.

A sad, secondary commentary on people first language is when it’s disregarded, because someone sees the need as a means of special treatment. A trendy diagnosis – like autism – can be used to create relevancy. Differences should be celebrated, but these people are doing themselves and their children a disservice in promoting the need. They are discriminating against their child as a multi-faceted person. By doing so, they are giving permission to other people to do the same. Very quickly “my amazing, special autistic child” becomes “the arm-flapping kid” or “that girls who counts all the time.” Children, especially, should be given the opportunity to define their own self beyond their special need.

For more information about the use of people-first language, check out the National Inclusion Project.