An effective education system must consider the needs and the diversity of abilities of all its target and actual beneficiaries. For this to be realized, use of politically correct language must be given utmost consideration in education environments with children with disabilities (Brunner & Smeltzer, 2010). Without careful selection and use of appropriate language, learners with various disabilities may be stigmatized, stereotyped and subjected to prejudicial experiences and frustrations in the course of their education. The use of politically correct language in a learning environment with children with special educational needs helps to eliminate social stigma associated with language insensitivity (Brunner & Smeltzer, 2010). This is because inappropriate descriptors used in reference to children with disabilities limits the educational potential of such learners.
This paper seeks to discuss the importance of politically correct language reflected in the adoption and use of person-first language in reference to children with disabilities. This will be explored with regard to the factual existence of diversity of abilities in the education system. Besides, the paper will explore the pros and the cons of the use of labels for the learners with diverse disabilities within the education system. Of great emphasis, however, will be the role of person-first language and labeling in determining the outcome of the education of children with disabilities. This will form the core point of discussion in this explorative paper.
Why Teachers should be cognizant of using Person-first Language in relation to Students with Disabilities
Person-first language is a linguistic approach used to enhance inclusion and eliminate social stigmatization associated with certain disabilities in people (Ashman & Elkins, 2002). When person-first linguistic approach is used, an individual with a disability is acknowledged for who he or she is instead of defining the person on the basis of his/her disability. Therefore, as terminologies change, the focus essentially is in putting people before their disabilities. The disability is therefore not given more focus over the person (Ashman & Elkins, 2002). An emphasis on the person and not the disability promotes self-worth and a feeling of belonging among students or children with disabilities. However, failure to use person-first language promotes stigmatization and stereotypical tendencies against children with special needs.
Person-first language helps in showing respect and honor to people with disabilities. This is applicable in all environmental set-ups including the educational and care facilities and that deal with any forms of disabilities. Ashman & Elkins (2002) cited that the use of person-first language helps in the achievement of equality in the education system. When teachers are cognizant of the fact that students with disabilities have the same goals of excelling academically, then the teacher will be able to create a supportive and enabling environment where the children with disabilities can realize their fullest potentials (Ashman & Elkins, 2002).
When a teacher uses person-first language in the class setting, the negative overtones that would have otherwise been portrayed against learners with disabilities are removed. For example, a teacher who refers to a child as “epileptic” may end up labeling the child so (Gargiulo, 2012). Other children may therefore spontaneously believe that there is something wrong with the child and that he/she is not equal to them or not “normal” as they are. This already creates an opportunity for discrimination, stereotyping and ostracism of the child by his/her peers. In such an environment, the social stigma associated with being labeled “abnormal” is by itself a limitation on the child’s development and educational potentials (Gargiulo, 2012).
The use of person-first language helps in eliminating the attraction of piteous images that render children with disabilities less-valuable, weak, dependant or even outcasts. For example, when a teacher says that the child is a victim of AIDS, it attracts self-pity, a sense of vulnerability and creates an image that the child’s life is forever full of misfortunes (Gargiulo, 2012). Instead, the teacher would say the “child has AIDS.” The use of person-first language therefore promotes the right attitude towards a child with any observed disability. The importance of this approach is in the fact that person-first language helps in removing the negative attitudes that are associated with certain disabilities (Ashman & Elkins, 2002).
Disability is not an expression of inability. The fact that one has a disability does not expressly imply that he/she is unable to perform certain tasks or achieve certain goals as his/her peers do. Ashman & Elkins (2002) contend that teachers’ cognizance and use of person-first language therefore promotes the self-worth of a child. In a class setting for example, the use of person-first language will help the teacher to motivate the child with a disability to perform well as his/her peers in the same class (Ashman & Elkins, 2002). Besides, this language will send a message to the other children that the child or any person with any form of disability are normal and are equally capable of excelling and succeeding like any other person. The negative attitudes that the other students could have had towards the child with disability are thus eroded when the teacher is cognizant of the person-first language.
Person-first language is an effective tool in advocating for the rights, respects and dignity of people with disabilities. This is applicable even in the education system. Linguistic disrespect precipitates disrespectful attitudes towards persons with disabilities (Mukuria & Bakken, 2010). Therefore person-first language helps teachers in eliminating derogatory statements that might have serious psychological and emotional implications on students with disabilities. Person-first language is thus agreeably instrumental in championing equality between learners in a class se-up (Ashman & Elkins, 2002).
Behavior is acquired through observation, or more classically, through observational learning or modeling as posited by Albert Bandura. In a class set-up, children acquire language and certain behavior through teacher-observation or simply listening to what the teacher says (Ashman & Elkins, 2002). Therefore, a teacher who is cognizant of the person-first language will orient all the children in his/her class to value, respect and consider children with disabilities as normal and also equals. This way, the teacher can use the children as effective weapons of fighting stereotypical, prejudicial and other discriminative statements, attitudes and behaviors towards people or individuals with disability (Mukuria & Bakken, 2010).
Teacher sensitivity and cognizance of person-first language helps in eliminating equation and association of children with disabilities to their conditions. Teachers can therefore promote right thoughts, attitudes, and perceptions of students, fellow teachers and the public towards learners with special needs and attend to them effectively through more appropriate approaches. Ashman & Elkins (2002) argue that this way, children with disabilities can live up to the ideals of a society of equal rights, equal opportunities and standings even for those with disabilities. Being cognizant of person-first language in an education environment with children with different learning abilities thus enables a teacher to effectively empower children with disabilities to achieve their full potential irrespective of their conditions (Ashman & Elkins, 2002).
When a teacher is cognizant of person-first language, the use of politically correct language will have significant influence in the learning outcomes (Reynolds & Janzen, 2007). For example, a teacher who refers to a child as, “the student with autism” insinuates that first, the child is a student like any other, his/her autistic condition not withstanding. The teacher will therefore relate to the student as a normal learner like others (Ashman & Elkins, 2002). However, this does not mean that the teacher is ignorant of the differences that may exist between the boy/ girl and the other students. In promoting effective learning, the teacher will therefore create extra time to give special attention to the learner not because the child is unable to learn as others do but as a way of recognition of the special learning needs of the child. This is the importance of being sensitive to and cognizant of the person-first language.
Pros of using Labels for Student’s with various Disabilities
Labeling of persons with disabilities is a very controversial topical issue in special education. However, whereas there are various negative implications of labeling, the advantages are also worth mentioning. To begin with, students with disabilities should be labeled in order to gain from state services (Obiakor, 2010). The labels therefore help children with disabilities to benefit from additional funding to facilitate their learning and effectively meet their needs. Without the labels, there would be no additional staffing to support the students with special educational needs (Obiakor, 2010). Besides, labeling helps in the identification of the special needs of the child so that the needs are effectively addressed.
In the education system, labeling may be very helpful. For example, treatments, instruction and support services are provided based on the labels. To illustrate this further, (Obiakor, 2010) cited that in a school, the administration can classify and label children with special needs to enhance special attention to their needs. In such cases for example, students with hearing disabilities can be identified to benefit from the use of sign language while children that are gifted and talented can be introduced to enriched curriculum.
Labeling helps the special interest groups and the advocacy organizations like Autism Society of America to identify and attend to the needs of the children with disabilities. Besides, through labeling, the needs of children with special needs are made more visible. They can thus be attended to effectively in a school or any care facilities dealing with such children (Obiakor, 2010). The arguments in favor of labeling are therefore mostly based on the need to identify individualized education plans for children with disabilities or special needs.
Through labeling, the meaningful differences in behavior and abilities are identified and responded to appropriately. Thus labels help educators to effectively address the special needs of individual learners. The proponents of this argument posit that it is practically technical for teachers to be of any meaningful help to a child unless the teacher exactly knows the kind of problems exhibited by the student. Obiakor (2010) cited that failure to recognize individual student’s disability through avoidance of labeling is thus equivalent to denying the student an opportunity to achieve his/her ideals. It is therefore a denial of the existence of the student’s disability and special needs.
Labeling a problem is an indication that the problem has been identified. Identification of the problems of children with disabilities within the education system is the initial step towards dealing with the problems effectively and productively. When teachers and professionals are informed about a problem, they become more aware of the correct intervention approaches that can be applied to cope with the problems (Obiakor, 2010). Therefore, the argument that labeling promotes social stigmatization is far-fetched and merely a make-believe and a figment of other people’s imaginations and thoughts.
The Cons of Labeling Children with Disabilities
The proponents of labeling have been able to rightly argue their case for labeling especially because of the relevance of labeling to the designing of appropriate intervention approaches to help children with disabilities (Obiakor, 2010). However, the risks associated with labeling are great. Labeling has harmful effects on the children with disabilities. For example, labeling often focuses on one characteristic, usually not strength but a weakness. To illustrate this further, a child with a physical impairment may be perceived as “a leg-paired child” (Ashman & Elkins, 2002). The real abilities and true picture and personality of the child in this context are therefore lost as a result of the labeling by the teacher in a class set-up. It becomes worse in cases where the peers take the label and use it in reference to the child (Reynolds & Janzen, 2007).
The diagnostic tools that are used in the labeling procedures are sometimes inaccurate. In such cases, children end up being mislabeled (Obiakor, 2010). This is quite demeaning because some of the labels apportioned at a young age may remain on a child’s record throughout all the stages of his/her educational pursuits. Teachers that the child comes across throughout his/her educational career may be biased in their attitude towards the labeled person, whether or not the label still exists. Further, labeling may render children vulnerable to discrimination based on the labels placed on them (Ashman & Elkins, 2002). For example, in a class set up, a child may miss an opportunity simply because it is assumed that he/she cannot do what other children are doing simply because of the label placed on him/her based on his/her disability. Such discriminative attitudes may hold whether or not the disability still exists. Labels thus victimize children even the more thus denying them opportunity that other children considered “normal” are given (Obiakor, 2010).
Labeling exposes children to very traumatizing experiences throughout their life. For example, a child labeled “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder” may be perceived to be generally slow without consideration, that among them, there are those who are active and have great educational potentials (Ashman & Elkins, 2002). Besides rendering children potential victims of stereotyping and social stigma, labeling may deny children certain opportunities. The implications of labeling on the quality of education offered to children with disability are more worrying. For example, labels can be used by a teacher as an excuse to deliver ineffective instruction (Ashman & Elkins, 2002). A teacher may claim that a particular student cannot complete his/her arithmetic tasks because of his/her mental condition. This may sometimes not be true but can still be used to discriminate the child.
Labeling batters the self-esteem of children with disabilities. For example, in a class set up, students that are constantly labeled “slow learners” may lose their sense of worth. In the long term, the labels may actually contribute to poor performance on the part of the students. This is because labels sometimes function as self-fulfilling prophecies (Mukuria & Bakken, 2010). Once labeled as weak or poor in a particular task, a child may live to actually believe that he/she is poor. Labels therefore inflict negativity on student’s self-perception. Besides, labels give a false impression that disabilities are permanent. Therefore, besides stigmatizing and stereotypical tendencies that labeling inflict on children with disabilities, it also limits the children’s ability to realize their educational ideals in any given education system.
The use of politically correct language depicted in the use of person-first linguistic model is important in the education system. This careful selection of language helps in elimination of negative labels that might be put on children with disabilities. Positive labeling is important since it helps to develop effective programs and tools for facilitating education system that meets the needs of students with disabilities. However, negative labeling may lead to stigmatization, stereotyping and discrimination against children with disabilities. This is why it is important for teachers to be cognizant of the person-first language that is sensitive to the conditions of the learners in an education system.