by Jessie Huart Sullivan

As a freshman in college, I took a class in the education department at Indiana University called Introduction to Exceptional Children. Although the class mostly feels like a distant memory, I took away an important lesson that I often still think about today: people first language.

By using people first language, we don’t define a person by a disability they happen to have.

Instead, a disabled person becomes a person with a disability; a complex person with many characteristics that define them – not just one. So, instead of saying a child is autistic, for example, we can say that the child has autism.

Who cares? People are too sensitive, some say.

The language we use doesn’t matter, others say.

The differences may be subtle, but words are powerful.

They can impact the way we view other people and the way people view themselves.

It’s an important lesson that is applicable beyond people with disabilities. The language we use and the labels we assign can also affect our ability to empathize.

It’s often easy to empathize with someone we consider a victim – a woman who has been sexually assaulted; a dog who has been abused; a child who has been exploited. But what about the perpetrators of violence — the people whom we have labeled as criminals?

In his book The Lucifer Effect, Philip Zimbardo addresses the labels “good” and “evil.”

He reflects on questions such as: Is there really a dividing line between good and evil that cannot be crossed? Do we all have the ability to commit both good and evil acts, based on the situation and our circumstances?

What would happen if we stripped away the labels and replaced them with people first language?

What would happen if our local news reports used phrases like the person “committed a violent crime,” rather than the person is “a violent criminal”? The difference is subtle; but again, words are powerful and have the ability to influence how we view others.

Maybe through this people first lens we can extend our empathy, even when it’s most difficult.

But what do we have to gain?

It’s tempting to label perpetrators of violence as “evil,” because it allows us to disregard their cruel behavior as an anomaly; but this dismissiveness can lead to a missed opportunity for understanding and for positive change.

We should look more deeply to help us understand the systemic issues that can lead to violence to begin with, such as poverty, unemployment, and a lack of access to quality education and other important resources. And changing our language and extending our empathy does not condone or excuse violence and cruelty.

It’s difficult to empathize with someone who has done harm to innocent people or nonhuman animals; but if we cannot, it’s much more challenging for us to know why it happened, to prevent it from happening again, and to generate lasting, positive change.

If we can move past divisive labels and move to a place of empathy, then hopefully we can better understand the complexities of being human and create systems that cultivate kindness rather than violence.


Image via The Shopping Sherpa/Flickr.