At a communal breakfast table at a farmers market, I observed a conversation that gave me a chuckle, and later got me thinking. A little girl at the table started to talk about her pet potbelly pig, and how funny he was. In response, a woman told the girl of her childhood pet pig. The woman said her pig was “all white, no pink at all. She was an albino pig”. I put down my coffee, looked towards the two, and resisted the urge to take off my hat, let my white blond hair flow down, and tell the woman to use Pig First Language!
This endearing childhood pet deserved to be remembered for being a pig! A pig who loved to eat apple cores. A pig who rolled in the mud. A pig who had the cutest little Oink. A pig who had albinism. A pig who first and foremost, was a pig!
In my life as a person who has a disability, and a person who is a disability rights advocate, I have had people-first language drilled into me. The goal of people-first language is to help society see those of us who have a disability as people, and the disability as secondary. For example, I am Leona, a woman who has albinism. I am not albino Leona. But if you’re calling me up on the phone, I’d prefer you just ask for Leona.
The challenge with people-first language is that it can be wordy and hard to get off your tongue. Fear of getting it wrong can cause the speaker (or writer) to focus more thought on the disability wording instead of the point they are trying to make.
A week after my “albino pig” encounter I experienced this tongue twisting experience. I was in a workshop writing a mock radio story on a teenager who has autism. I struggled to get past the first line because I couldn’t remember if Billy was a teenager who has autism, or a teenager with autism. In either case, I just couldn’t get the words to fit in a short concise sentence which would flow off my tongue. I started to feel anxious that I would say the wrong thing, and mislead others. This got me thinking, if I can’t get the correct words out of my mouth, is it fair to expect the rest of the world to get it straight? Does it really matter what order the words come in, as long as they are said with dignity and respect?
It would be easier if the pig could just be a pig, and I could just be Leona, and Billy could just be Billy, but sometimes our disability needs to be acknowledged. If I am going into a gym requesting accommodation as Leona, no one would understand. But if I request accommodation as Leona who has partial vision, my needs are better understood. When someone doesn’t know my name, is it such a bad thing to be referred to as the blind woman? It is as much or more so, a distinguishing factor as my height, or hair colour. So why should I care?
I don’t know why I care, but I do know that as I wrote “blind woman”, I cringed. As much as I accept that I have albinism, and am legally blind, I really dislike it being the characteristic people most easily identify in me. I don’t know if this comes from the taunts of children on the playground, or the constant fight against stereotypes of blindness, or the years of people-first language training. What I do know is that it does matter to me.
I don’t want to be referred to as an albino, or the blind woman. I wish I could be comfortable with people referencing a person who has a disability with whatever words they come out with, as long as it is done with a positive tone. But my pig friend has showed me otherwise. She was a pig, and I am Leona, and we have albinism.