COLUMBIA — At the conclusion of the MU Disability Center's annual Celebrate Ability Week, Erin Andrews, a rehabilitation psychologist and an amputee, said the public should be careful in how they refer to people with disabilities. 

Andrews gave a presentation Friday afternoon on disability language and culture at the MU Student Center. The presentation, entitled Disability Rights are Civil Rights: Developing Cultural Competence Using Disability Language, began with a brief history on disability rights in America. Andrews continued her talk into present day, speaking about the various ways in which media, public and government talk about disability.

American Psychological Association style recommends the use of person-first language— saying someone is a "person with disabilities," rather than referring to them as a "disabled person."

The complication, Andrews said, is that the language used to talk about people with disabilities is not one-size-fits all. She said even the current model of person-first language is not necessarily what an individual prefers.

"Person-first language has become just amazingly popular," Andrews said. "It's pretty much the standard out there. I think that people like person-first language, particularly people without disabilities, because it feels really safe.

"What happened was people started asking the question, 'Why is it important to separate the disability from the person?'" Andrews said. "'Have we overcorrected to the point of actually further stigmatizing the very thing we're saying we're trying to destigmatize?'"

As a solution, Andrews supports the practice of alternating between person-first language ("person who is disabled") with identity-first language ("disabled person"). She went on to emphasize the importance of personal preference on the debate.

"People have preferences, and that's okay and that's important. It's a contentious issue," Andrews said. "Decisions about language are always personal, and people do have their own preferences."

Rather than looking at disability from a medical or social model, Andrews advocates for people to look at disability from a diversity perspective.

"Disability is a natural aspect of life," Andrews said. "It's normal; it's not a deviance."

Supervising editor is Jack Suntrup.

  • Enterprise reporter for the Columbia Missourian

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