It happens more often than you’d think. I’m scrolling through a piece of writing relating to policy or human rights, and I see it: “persons with disabilities.” It’s not something I find in much mainstream writing, but in the non-profit and government worlds, it’s ubiquitous. Though I’ve come to expect it, it always stands out to me in the most distracting way. It conjures other phrases, like “persons unknown” or “persons of interest.” It’s clinical and cold. It feels archaic and, especially outside the context of law, dehumanizing.
It seems like everyone else gets to hang out at what passes for the cool table, under the “people” umbrella. (Boy, that bar is high.) We don’t typically talk about persons of colour, or LGBTQ+ persons, or persons with low incomes. Governments don’t commit to supporting “working persons.” Politicians don’t address the “persons of this great country.” Democracy is not “by the persons, for the persons.” That would sound odd, if not incorrect. At best, it would be out of place, and give people pause.
I’m not usually a splitter of hairs when it comes to small linguistic details, unless I’m wearing my editor’s hat. I tend to think that while language has immense power, the sky isn’t likely to fall if someone refers to me as, say, “visually disabled” versus “visually impaired.” I may have a preference, but it’s a personal one, unlikely to inspire whole blog posts. You say tomato, I say “Who cares?”
There is something about “persons with disabilities” that continues to annoy, no matter how many times I come across it. Unearthing the phrase buried in legislation is one thing, but when I see it in a recent piece of writing, I can’t help but shake my head. Why haven’t we joined everyone else? Why have we yet to gain full “people” status? Why are we still being referenced, in a surprising number of documents, using a term that is jarring and isolating for no good reason? Are we destined always to remain in a medicalized category of our own, somewhere just to the south of “people?”
It really is a very minor detail, I know. Most people will look at “persons with disabilities” and not even notice the strangeness of it. Others will notice, and not care. I’m sure many people with disabilities (see what I did there?) will read this and shrug. There are bigger fish to fry, certainly–more important quibbles to discuss, definitely.
But my favourite thing about minor details is that they are so simple to fix. The complex issues are hard to solve, and I’m in no position to do much about any of them. What I can do is make sure “persons with disabilities” never creeps into my own writing. I can encourage my clients and coworkers to start thinking of us, and representing us, as a group of people much like every other. I can point out how bizarre it is to cling to such an outdated term, and hope that it will one day become a rare one.
If you’d like to see “persons” with disabilities become a relic of a society that really did view disabled people as less-than, instead of a phrase we cling to with bewildering obstinacy, you might consider joining me in this modest quest. I’d be more than happy to hear about your progress, pushback and all.