My name is Sr. Janice Marie Johnson. I am a Sister of Mercy and have been working in the Diocese of Allentown for 36 years. I was principal of Mercy School for Special Learning, a school in Allentown for children and young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, for 16 years. Following that role I was supervisor of the diocese’s seven special education programs for 12 years as well as the diocesan Director of the Office for Ministry with Persons with Disabilities. I am presently still serving in the role of director.
“Have you ever heard someone say Mary suffers from Down syndrome or Jose is that epileptic boy? Or read a newspaper headline stating Handicapped Parking Now Available or Disabled Students Admitted to Normal Classroom?
One of my passions in this ministry is encouraging “People First Language”. This means making reference to the person first…a person with a disability. Refer to the person not the condition… a person with epilepsy. It is language that describes what a person has, not what a person is.
Words are powerful tools that can affirm and empower. They are the basic means by which people communicate. Words help us form our opinions and draw conclusions. Misuse of words can belittle and demean. Don’t focus on what someone can’t do, but on what they can do. Language used to describe people with disabilities often focuses on lack of ability rather than competency. It can infer people with disabilities are not normal or are suffering due to their disability.
The word “handicapped” was used in the past and still today evokes feelings of sadness, pity and fear. It also created stereotypes. The legendary origin of the word “handicap” refers to a person with a disability having to beg on the street with “cap in hand”. Instead, use the term
Hopefully, by reading this blog, you have been encouraged to put people before their disability and be more conscious of using “People First Language”.