Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can hurt my heart

Dominique Bradshaw

How many times have you labeled someone by their disability instead of recognizing them first, and foremost, as a person? Like countless others, we, too, have been guilty of this. However, through our involvement in the Therapeutic Recreation (TR) program here at Grand Valley, we have learned to look at others through a different lens.

The use of person-first language is not something that comes naturally to many individuals. Most are not aware of the implications of what they are saying and how it may negatively affect those around them. Words are powerful. Person-first language is the politically correct use of words describing an individual with a disability. For example, instead of saying, “I know an autistic child,” the person-first language would be, “I know a child who has autism.” By not using person-first language, you acknowledge the disability instead of the person. In doing this, you label and limit the individual to stereotypes associated with the disability. For generations, the hearts and minds of people with disabilities have been crushed by negative, stereotypical descriptors that in turn led to segregation, abuse, devaluation and worse. By using person-first language, we can generate positive change in the lives of people with disabilities.

The Therapeutic Recreation program has taught us the values and importance of treating individuals with disabilities with the respect that they deserve. Our program focuses on assisting individuals with disabilities to engage in recreation and leisure to improve their overall quality of life. When labeling a person by their disability, you focus on what the person cannot do. As TR students, we value what the individual can do despite their disability. The TR program is involved with David’s House, Spectrum Health, Mary Free Bed, and other local organizations to advocate the importance of independence and involvement in the community for people with disabilities.

Although a person may have a disability, it does not make him or her less of a person mentally, physically, emotionally or spiritually. A person’s self-image is strongly tied to the words used to describe him or her. People with disabilities are unique individuals with unlimited potential to achieve their dreams, just like everyone else. Using person-first language may require a few more words and a few more seconds, but you ensure inclusion, freedom and respect for people with disabilities.

For more information about person-first language, visit

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