31 for 21: Why People-First Language is Important to Me, and Why Stereotypes Suck

When I was at school waiting for my kids to be let out yesterday afternoon, another mom was chatting with me and she began admiring Finn.  She teaches special ed PE at a different school.  Yesterday she said to me, “I just love my Downs kids!  They are soooo precious.  They’re all just so lovable.”

I just felt myself go kind of numb.  This type of thing really deserves a response, but it’s hard to know what to say when ignorance is personified in a fellow mom standing just inches away from you, and it’s cloaked in sugary kindness.  So I just gave her a tight smile and didn’t say anything.  And of course kicked myself for the rest of the day thinking of all the things I could have/should have said.

What bothered me about her comments (aside from the fact that it’s not the first time she’s said such things to me – this is a pretty regular thing from her)?  I know she means well, I know her heart is in the right place, and I know it’s important to judge someone’s behavior in the context of their intent.  At least she wasn’t saying ugly, nasty things, right?  It’s still painful, though.  Here’s why:

First of all, she is a special ed PE teacher!  Which means she deals with kids with various diagnoses and disabilities all the time.  And she still doesn’t get it.  She still doesn’t get why People-First Language is important, and why stereotypes are derogatory and hurtful.  I find this so discouraging!

So what is it about People-First Language?  Isn’t it just another way for us parents of kids with special needs to be giant pains in the ass, to insist on Political Correctness because we secretly resent having a child with special needs so much that this is one of the only ways we feel like we can get a handle on the depressing situation we find ourselves in?

No.  Okay?  Just no.

When you look at my son, I want you to see a PERSON.  A little boy.  A human effing being.  When you say “Downs kids,” you are making it very clear that you don’t see the person, you only see the condition or diagnosis.  It’s dehumanizing.  I’m not asking anyone to pretend he doesn’t have Down syndrome, I’m just asking that you try to see past it, and to the little boy that he is.  Down syndrome is a part of him, but it doesn’t define him.  It’s about respect and dignity and compassion.

Stereotypes.  Hate ’em!  And I was going to sit down and write a whole thing about stereotypes and realized I wrote something about a year ago that still holds completely true for me.  Please take a look and give it some thought: Stereotypes.


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10 Comments on “31 for 21: Why People-First Language is Important to Me, and Why Stereotypes Suck”

  1. jen
    October 14, 2011 at 10:55 pm #

    I have a question. As usual, I mean no judgment. Just discussion and a juggling of ideas because I respect the way you think things through.

    I’ve heard so many similar statements about kids: “I just love little redheads – they’re so adorable!” “Three-year-olds are the cutest!” “Little boys are so snuggly!” “Toddlers in glasses are so cute!”

    Obviously, there must be some exceptions to these statements – less than adorable redheads, little boys who don’t snuggle… The statement probably reflects the speaker’s general positive experience with the group as a whole, but the speaker probably realizes that it’s not a 100% absolute.

    Generalizing is human nature. We can’t learn if we can’t generalize. We would have to learn each detail over again in each situation. While there are situations where generalizing is not good, we can’t remove it from humanity.

    Down syndrome is a human characteristic. The speaker, in this case, seems to have had a good experience with children with down syndrome. If we tell people it’s wrong to make claims about down syndrome like they do about other characteristics, doesn’t that make it taboo? Don’t we want people to be comfortable with it, to accept it as one characteristic among many, and really just as acceptable as any given hair color? Shouldn’t we be fighting off the taboo and celebrating the open acceptance?

    • Lisa
      October 14, 2011 at 11:24 pm #

      I see the point you’re trying to make Jen, but I disagree. People with Down syndrome – and other disabilities – have historically been marginalized and seen as less than people. Making generalizations about redheads, or little boys, or toddlers in glasses, is not harmful in the same way that making generalizations about people with Down syndrome is – those sectors of people are not minorities who have been, and continue to be, the subject of prejudice. Make generalizations about any minority – even if they’re positive generalizations – is just another way of failing to see the real person for all their uniqueness. I’m glad the person I referred to in my post has had positive interactions with kids with Ds, but her generalizations, even though positive, just say to me that she thinks they’re all pretty much the same, that they all share the same non-personalities, that they come from the same cookie cutter molds, and that she doesn’t really see beyond Down syndrome to the unique people they are.

  2. mamaneedsdietcoke
    October 15, 2011 at 1:30 am #

    If a kindergarten teacher said to you ” i just love my kindergarten kids, they are so sweet” would that be offensive? It’s not people-first language and it does generalize. We all know some kindergarten kids are actually pains in the ass, etc.

    • Lisa
      October 15, 2011 at 2:48 am #

      I responded to this point in my response to Jen’s comment. Kindergarteners have not historically been marginalized and seen and treated as less than human, and families of kindergarteners have not had to battle for years and years to try to get their children seen and treated as valuable, unique individuals. I suspect you are not yourself the parent of a child with Down syndrome; if that is the case, then you can’t know how it feels from this side. It sounds like you just want to defend anyone’s right to say the things they want to say, without regard to how those things might make their target audience feel. If a parent of a child with Ds says to you “It bothers me when people say this, and this is why,” the compassionate response would be to try to see it from the other’s perspective. What trumps – your right to cling to stereotypes, or the feelings of the people targeted by those very stereotypes? Even if the stereotypes are “positive,” they negate the individuality of the people included within that group.

      • mamaneedsdietcoke
        October 15, 2011 at 8:04 pm #

        No, I was just curious as to your thoughts and where you drew the “offensive stereotype” line. I am a teacher. I found your response to me to be intentionally rude, I am finished with your blog. I thought you welcomed questions and interactions but apparently not.

      • Lisa
        October 15, 2011 at 8:07 pm #

        You know, your initial comment/question came across as a little snarky. If you really were just interested in where I draw the line between offensive and non-offensive, you could have simply asked that question. Frankly, it surprises me that as a teacher – who I assume deals with children and people from all walks of life regularly – you don’t see the difference between harmless generalizations and offensive stereotypes. Anyway, maybe both of us have been wrong about the other’s tone. That’s the problem with written words – so many ways to read them.

  3. Michael
    October 15, 2011 at 5:37 am #

    ‎”All redheads are adorable” is a generalization. “All Jews are stingy” is a stereotype. To be sure, a stereotype is a form of generalization, but by no means are they synonymous. In the former, one might focus on the commonalities, but they don’t define the subject. You know there’s more to the redhead than that he’s adorable. Stereotypes, on the other hand, and by design, ask you to not look beyond the stereotyped characteristic; they dehumanize.

  4. Jaida
    October 15, 2011 at 5:32 pm #

    I’m curious, Lisa, would it have made a difference to you if this woman clearly spoke just about her students with Ds? For instance, “I’ve had a number of students with Ds and I’ve always really enjoyed working with them…they’ve been so sweet,” or similar? I would imagine that as a special ed teacher she probably encounters many students that are…not as pleasant to work with due to behaviors they may or may not be able to control.

    I am also really bothered when people imply that anyone with Down syndrome is always happy; it’s really patronizing. Likewise, I hate when people meet Pacey and remark that he is just SO HAPPY. Which, sure, he’s a happy kid which I like to think stems from a loving and supportive family and community rather than his chromosomal makeup.

    My mom is a medical assistant though, and she occasionally has a patient with Down syndrome. She sometimes tells me about them and will often comment that he or she is really sweet (they are frequently kids). That doesn’t bother me because it’s a comment specific to an experience. I’m not sure she’d tell me if she had a patient with Ds that was a huge pain in the ass, nor am I sure I would want her to!

    One other question: what’s your favorite compliment people give you about Finn?

    • Lisa
      October 15, 2011 at 5:49 pm #

      Jaida, I suppose it might feel differently if she talked specifically about the students she’s had, and not just a sweeping statement about people with Ds. Honestly, if someone told me something about a person with Ds being a pain in the ass, I think I’d laugh and maybe even secretly applaud. They’re people.

      What’s my favorite compliment people give about Finn? Most people comment on how cute he is, and he is pretty cute 🙂


  1. 31 for 21: More on Stereotypes | Life As I Know It - October 15, 2011

    […] guess I was a little surprised that a couple of people left comments on my recent People-First Language and Stereotypes post defending  . . . well, stereotypes.  I’m having a hard time understanding how anyone can […]

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