Choosing person-first language over identity-first
“Person-first” language describes someone as a person first and then attaches a neutral phrase designating disability. The phrase “people with disabilities” is an example of person-first language. “Identity-first” language foregrounds the disability and then attaches a label such as “person.” The identity-first version of “people with disabilities” is “disabled people.”
The current social consensus is that person-first language is preferable, but there are many exceptions to this rule. The goal of person-first language is to combat objectification by prioritizing peoples’ humanity. Many people who feel that their disabilities dictate their daily lives prefer identity-first language, however. These individuals say that disability forms such a key part of their identities that they want to foreground it, not treat it as secondary. Other disabled activists choose identity-first language because they want to subvert the popular assumption that disability is inherently negative and should be minimized.
Advocates of person-first language and identity-first language both generally use disability as a modifier: rather than referring to someone as “a schizophrenic,” one would say, “a person with schizophrenia.” However, some—but not all—people in the Autistic community choose to be identified as “an Autistic,” for reasons similar to those of people who embrace identity-first language.
Avoiding pejorative terms
Language is ever-changing, and lists of words that are broadly considered offensive tend to reflect this evolution. For example, after years of activism by many, the “r-word” has mostly disappeared from polite and professional contexts. Other currently popular terms to avoid include “crazy,” “handicapped,” “blind,” and “differently abled.”
As scholars of rhetoric, we do our best to stay updated, not in order to condemn people for using certain words, but because we want to make all of our communication as kind and thoughtful as possible. It takes time for people (including us) to learn that certain terms now have harmful connotations, especially if those terms have been widely used in the past. However, once we realize that a certain term is hurtful, we acknowledge our ongoing responsibility to stop using it, recognizing that this process can take time but is nevertheless important.
Rejecting the false narratives of tragedy porn and inspiration porn
As scholars of literature, we know the power of narratives. Two common narratives that have been harmful to people with disabilities are called “tragedy porn” and “inspiration porn.”
Tragedy porn focuses on a person’s misery, pain, and loss, often to the exclusion of other dimensions of the person’s character and experiences. While many people in the disability community have experienced suffering connected with their disabilities, many also feel that their stories are not tragedies. Tragedy porn has often been used to objectify disabled people, treating them only as vehicles for melodrama.
Inspiration porn, a term coined by activist Stella Young, can be similarly dehumanizing. Inspiration porn valorizes a person with a disability simply for living with a disability. Some disabilities do present major challenges to the individuals who have them. These challenges can cultivate character qualities such as perseverance, ingenuity, joy, and faith, which are worthy of recognition and literary exploration. But inspiration porn leaves no room for a disabled person to be fallible. It reduces the person to an object whose job is to make everyone else feel or be better, rather than recognizing their full humanity.
Employing multimodal communication
In English, we study rhetoric in many forms, not just word-based text on a page. We recognize that different media present different rhetorical opportunities and constraints. We also know that not all forms of media can communicate the same message equally well to all people.
Good rhetorical practice means carefully tailoring one’s communication to meet the needs and desires of the intended audience.
Some people are better able to process auditory communication than visual, for example, or vice versa. When possible, we choose to convey information in multiple formats, in keeping with principles of universal design. Making our texts accessible to everyone benefits all members of our audiences, regardless of disability status.
Using clear language and avoiding unnecessary complexity
We appreciate the intricacy of a sonnet, the artistry of metaphor, the nuances of uncommon words, etc. Studying and interpreting these complexities is a central part of our work.
When we give instructions and other non-literary content, however, we often use plain language. “Plain language” is the practice of making text understandable for as many people as possible. It supports inclusion by reaching a broad range of people, including people with different verbal processing abilities and people for whom English is a second language.
When appropriate, we choose simple words instead of complicated ones. We remove content that adds nothing to what we have already said. We pay attention to the length and complexity of our sentences and paragraphs.
We might still write long, dense passages of text. If we do, though, it is because we see a purpose for the complexity in those cases—a purpose that cannot be met with plainer language.
As people who study, practice, and teach writing, we continually strive to be as clear as possible in our work. That is part of the craft of good writing. It is also part of how we can embrace cura personalis and solidarity and kinship with our readers.