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People with disabilities are people first

July 24, 2011
By PAT ROSS - Administrative Assistant, Columbiana County MHRS Board , Salem News

Did you ever take the time to really examine the labels we put on people? He is "mentally ill"; she is an "addict"; he or she is "handicapped." Who are the "mentally ill," the "addicts," and the "handicapped?" They are members of your family, your neighbors, your friends, teachers, fellow employees, and television and movie personalities.

People with disabilities are, first and foremost, people. People First Language is an objective way of emphasizing each person's value, individuality, and capabilities. It eliminates generalizations, assumptions, and stereotypes by focusing on the person rather than the disability. To have an illness, or to have the diagnosis of an illness, is notably different than to be the illness.

One individual who is in recovery with a mental illness said: "When we are referred to as a diagnosis or a label like 'consumer' and 'the mentally ill,' it further stigmatizes people who are already dealing with the stigma and the lack of understanding about what it means to be living with mental illness. When we are labeled and forgotten as 'people first,' we become less than everybody else. It means we are not people; that we are problems and don't have the same rights to dignity and respect that is due to all people. We are people first, and we want the same things in life that other people want."

According to Pamela Hyde, Administrator of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), "One thing everyone agrees on, including me, is that nearly every term we use is problematic. We need to find a way to talk about prevention, health, disorders, disease, addiction, illness, and recovery so that we can address the issues and not argue about what we mean. We definitely need to use 'people first' language regardless of how we describe people with symptoms, illnesses, addictions, or diseases, and how we label their status."

Ms. Hyde said that she has no favorite term or terms and that at times, she promoted "people first" language and worked with other advocates to change the words "patient" and "client" to "consumer" when that seemed to be the standard. "I know language matters," said Hyde. "However, what really matters is that we not get distracted, not fight among ourselves, and not make assumptions about motives or beliefs based on the current language we use. We need to engage in the discussion, but not write one another off when we do not agree."

In response to Ms. Hyde's comments, one person recovering with a mental illness said: "I am a person in recovery. I am thrilled that you are finally looking at the terms you define us by. I absolutely hate the term 'consumer' which implies that we use up all the resources. We give an awful lot back - to the system that helps us, to our peers, and our communities."

Stigma is about disrespect:

It hurts, punishes, and diminishes people

It harms and undermines all relationships.

It appears in behavior, language, attitude, and tone of voice.

It happens even when we don't mean it.

Consider the following:

DON'T focus on a disability. Focus on issues that affect the quality of life for everyone.

DON'T portray successful persons with disabilities as "super humans."

DON'T sensationalize a disability by using terms such as "afflicted with," "suffers from," "victim of," and so on.

DON'T use generic labels such as "the retarded," "our mentally ill," etc.

DO put people first, not their disabilities. For example, say "person with schizophrenia" rather than "schizophrenic."

DO emphasize abilities, not limitations. Terms that are condescending must be avoided.

For more information on this and other mental health and drug and alcohol topics, please contact the board at 330-424-0195, or check out the board's website:



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