Disabilities, Expectations, and Person-First Language

I had a great talk with the mother of one of my clients today about disabilities and expectations.

She told me how some specialists had told her early on, “Don’t expect him to do anything. Don’t expect him to sit up at 6 months, or talk when other kids do.”
She and her husband decided not to go back to those specialists.

She got in the car after that meeting and had a talk with her newborn. She told him he could do anything he wanted—anything he set his mind to—and his family would do everything they could to help him.

You see, she doesn’t see her child as disabled. She sees her child. That’s it.
But she said it worries her sometimes to think about how many other parents these specialists have told “not to expect” anything of their children, and how many of them believed it.

As specialists – Speech-Language Pathologists, Occupational Therapists, Physical Therapists, Behavioral Health Therapists and others — this is something we should think about. We need to take care with the words we use. Any Speech-Language Pathologist knows that words are powerful. They can empower, or they can tear down. Of course we don’t want to give families false hope, but it is a fact that if we expect almost nothing from our children — any children — that is usually about what we will get. Expectations are also powerful things. If we expect a child to excel, he is more likely to excel. It is as simple as that.

Case in point: The mother I was talking with today? The one who was told by those specialists that her child wouldn’t do typical things? That child has already proven those specialists entirely wrong. Because his parents have just expected him to be himself, and they have been there to support him however they can. They are his best resource.

We should also take care to see the children we evaluate and treat, not the diagnoses of these children. Again, words are powerful. The words we use in talking about our clients, in talking to each other, and especially in talking to parents, are vitally important. That is why I believe wholeheartedly in person-first language. The language we use to talk about our clients is not a social nicety – it is a mirror of the way we see those clients—and the way we see them should be as people first. If you identify your client by the disorder he/she has, you are saying you see the disorder first, not the person. As if that person is just the embodiment of that disorder.

I think that when we talk to the parents of our clients who have disabilities, we should say, “Limitations may come, but don’t look for them in your child.” If you look for them, you will find them. And, as another therapist has suggested to me, tell them, “It’s going to be hard, but you’re not alone.”

But the child of that mother I was talking with? Have you noticed I haven’t mentioned his disability? It’s because it doesn’t really matter. As I said, his mother doesn’t see that disability. She sees him. And he is sweet, funny, silly, and smart. He obviously loves life. And his family obviously loves him. His parents are willing to encourage him to do anything. He is doing just great. That is what matters.

Child Trends Databank. (2012). Parental expectations for their children’s academic
attainment. Available at: ChildTrends.org – See more at: Parental Expectations for their Childrens Academic Attainment
“What is People First Language?” The Arc. Web. 15 Sept. 2015 – TheARC.org

Disabilities, Expectations, and Person-First Language
Teresa Davis, M.S. CCC-SLP

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