Illustration of a group of people with various disabilities in a workplace setting. The words say "person-first or identity first?"

I Before E Except After C….

I before E except after C and when sounded as A such as neighbor and weigh.

I so appreciate having these kinds of creative mnemonics to help me learn something new. And just when I think I understand it, along comes “caffeine,” “seize,” and “policies.

How often do we hear people struggle to find the correct word to use when talking about individuals within the service realm of AWS Foundation? It can be awkward for some as they search their memories for a proper reference, often knowing to avoid the “R word,” but uncertain if “low IQ,” “normal,” or “mentally challenged” are acceptable. (They are NOT)

Then along came PERSON FIRST language and everything was clear.  We had our reminder on what to say. Woman with Down syndrome. Persons with low vision. Man with a spinal cord injury. The intent is to first recognize the person, not the disability.

Just like the words “caffeine” and “seize,” there are exceptions to this rule.

Increasingly I am finding self-advocates pushing back against person first language. Those in the Deaf community identify themselves as “deaf,” not person with hearing loss or individual who is deaf. Shayla Mass has multiple disabilities including, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, and she is quick to say, “I am actually disabled…don’t be afraid to say the word disabled.” More and more people are defining themselves as autistic, acknowledging that it is part of their identity.

It starts getting weird (another word that doesn’t follow the above spelling rule) when we see people struggle to find the right words. Is it “differently-abled” or “varying abilities?” What about “special needs?” (Some self-advocates prefer you don’t use these either)

Let’s acknowledge that we are trying to be respectful, AND honor an individual’s preference. I learned early in nursing training to never refer to the “heart attack in room 1” and to never reference a patient with a stroke “their good side” or “bad side.”

If possible, ASK the person’s preference. Sometimes they can give you a clue when you hear how they refer to themselves or to others. If you make a mistake, apologize and pledge to try to do better. Hopefully, the correction to your language was shared with an attempt at compassion and grace. But above all else, don’t let your uncertainty of language be the reason you aren’t joining the conversation.

Here is my attempt for a catchy reminder:

Acknowledge the person and then the condition
When an error occurs, then offer contrition

When word preference is shared and another requested
Take it to heart and do as suggested

Respect is preferred, so offer humility
If ever in doubt, ASK about ability