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Using "Correct Language" And "People First" by Ira David Socol

Ira David Socol is a blogger over at SpeEdChange, he’s also a twitter friend of mine who recently put me in my place when I tweeted about a diversity issue. His response was to something I tweeted about Ira David Socol in regards to "correct language" and it prompted me to ask him more questions about the issue. Just so you know, CL is something I have become quite passionate about because quite frankly, I don’t know much about it.

My point is that teachers and other professionals should be constantly updated as to how they (we) speak; not to be politically correct, but to understand how our language, may in fact, tell a story about who we are and where we come from.

Here’s my interview with someone who I believe is becoming an expert-in-the-field on using correct language.

AB) Using correct language in regards to teaching is an area that is oftentimes overlooked. Why do you think this is case? What don’t people "understand?"

Systems create language for the benefit of those in power. Classic example – “everyone” pronounces “Celtic” as “Kel-tick” accept working class Celts themselves (see the sport teams which use this name). “Kel-tick” is important to the educated elite not because it may be a more accurate representation of the ancient word, but because its use is a badge of their educational and social superiority.


In the case of “People First” language for those with disabilities , what we have is not belief in linguistic emancipation, but a desire to “change something” in order to make educators feel responsive. Special education services haven’t changed much at all in the past 40 or 50 years – we use the same deficit model, we use the same types of assessment, we still flail around with school-generated solutions which foster dependence – but we can see we have “evolved,” no retards, no cripples, no morons, hey “we’ve changed since the bad old days.”


But disability remains a social identity. To work from Tom Shakespeare, it is the intersection of ability and the social structure. There is no such thing as a legitimate way to define “normal.” After all, if there were, the bizarre global minority of humans without black hair and brown eyes would be considered freaks. So, society defines certain people as outside of normal, and they do that with words.


For some groups, the hyphenation strategy is reached, be it “Scotch-Irish” or “African-American” or even “Student-Athlete,” but for others, where a real belief in pathology remains, we keep the “person with” structure. A student with the swine flu. A student with cancer. A student with a learning disability.” We don’t hyphenate any of those because we do not accept them as cultural identities, rather, we view them as illnesses.


So call me “dyslexic,” and call me “multi-attentioned” (or something), but stop pathologizing me. I don’t “have” these things, I “am” these things, because your society has made it that way.

AB) How did you become so involved in championing this cause?


You grow up knowing you do not quite “fit in.” You look around and you begin to wonder, “Who the f— decided the shape of things anyway?” And then, as you look around you realize that it is all about the preservation of power by the few at the expense of the many.


Schools treat students with disabilities the way they do – they have constructed the belief they have in disability – for the same reasons the Brits treated Catholics badly in Ireland or White South Africans created apartheid. It is a belief system which helps maintain the status quo for the elite.


I’m no Michael Collins, but I think I should do what I can.

AB) Your blog post, May Day: Retard Theory, generated an enormous amount of dialogue. What was your reasoning behind the heading?

"So it is time to say it, and say it every day. There is no normal. There is no normal way to read, or to write, or to listen, or to see, or to get from here to there."


I believe that we have to challenge accepted strategies and ideas. And whether you call it “Normalism” or “Disablism” we need to understand how narrative impacts cultural belief. If we convert horrid prejudices into pleasant sounding phrases, we diffuse those prejudices as an issue. So, since you treat me as if I am “retarded,” please don’t hide behind your nonsensical, “Student with Learning Disabilities.” That language might make you feel better, but it does nothing for me.


As long as you consider one way of doing things “normal,” you will demean me and treat me as less than fully human. What I was trying to say in this post –in a way which would provoke conversation – was that the very concept of “accommodation” is so very wrong, because it is based in disablism – the belief that I and others are not, and will never get to be, “normal,” unless “you” cure me by making me like you.


When people use terms such as Queer Theory, Crip Theory, and here, “Retard Theory,” the goal is to upset, to disrupt, to provoke. Only by doing those things can we bring people out of their safe places, into the actual conversation.

AB) What was your goal in writing, The Drool Room River Foyle Press (November 13, 2007)? What did you want to accomplish?


The Drool Room began as two short stories written for my own needs., but I found that when I shared early versions people continually said, “I never knew.” Or “This is a world I never understood.” I decided that if I could offer anyone a view of the world they might not otherwise see, it was worth the effort.


Throughout my life I have seen that fiction is a far better way of building understanding than statistics. Only fiction can bring you fully into someone’s world, can let you see through a different pair of eyes. And I wanted readers to see through this narrator, not to feel sorry for him, and not even to root for him, but to try to imagine his lifetime journey.


If teachers read this, I’m hoping they see how who this child is works for him as well as against him, how he responds to environments, how he gathers information. This isn’t suggesting that this represents any “class” of students, just that it demonstrates the variety of experience within a classroom.

AB) Using "people first" language is encouraged here in the states. In your opinion, what is the right language? Is there such a thing? I am referred to as African American and quite frankly, American is what I would prefer being "labeled." What are your thoughts on that type of "labeling?"


Of course you’d rather be an “American.” That would mean that your identity could be created by you rather than imposed by you based on the fiction of “race.” And students/people with “disabilities” would rather be “students” or “people” because then they would have the right to construct their own identities.


We only rarely label as a positive, and almost never with groups. And what we label among groups is proof of our prejudices. Thus, we don’t say, “Euro-American” very often, “American” assumes white and European-origined. And we don’t say, “student with a music disability,” or “student with a soccer-kicking disability” because we don’t believe that those skills have actual value.


I remember that at age eight or so we looked at blueprints in school. I could understand them instantly. Many kids couldn’t figure them out at all. I could read music and play instruments and many others couldn’t. But I had a label and they didn’t. They could have an identity which focused on their strengths and I could not.


“People-first” language is meant to divide, it is meant to demean, it is meant to dehumanize, it is meant to pathologize, and yet, it is meant, as I said before, to make its users feel good. In that way it is ultimately destructive because it covers up the crimes.


Only when people get to choose their own labels will we get anywhere toward building an equitable culture.

Ira David Socol is an author, a parent, a research and teaching graduate student at Michigan State University, and a former many things, including New York City Police Officer. His research focus is the intersection of literacy, technology, education, and disability, now and historically.


  1. MissShuganah says:

    Ira expresses many thoughts I have had throughout my life. Labels stigmatize people. Coded message: stay away from that person. Even though I was never formally labeled, I knew I was different. I tried to conform. Just about killed me. Now have two daughters with likely misapplied labels. Younger one might overcome hers. We need a way to give students what they need without making it a problem. If all students had IEPs then there wouldn’t be any stigmas. And all would get what they need.

  2. I fully agree that this labeling is intended to make education institutes and workplace’s life much more organized” and simple – since everything is supposedly rightly categorized and ‘boxed’. These organizations do not need then to contend with issues that they do not define as “normal”.
    As a dyslexic, I always tried to “hide” my categorization till I was already in the system. This way there was a higher chance that I would be allowed to enter the system, and also when I was finally labeled in the system, that I had already provided some self-evidence that discredits this “labelization”.

  3. On the one hand, labeling – categorizing – is a way we humans organize our world. And our organizing language tells many stories about who we are, and what our place is in the power structure. On the other hand, labeling camouflages the meaningful details that help us see ourselves and each other AS human beings, rather than as “Other.”
    In my school we very intentionally move past details. We work with our students and families to develop learner profiles, with the explicit goal of leveraging strengths to develop areas of challenge. We use the Schools Attuned neurodevelopmental domains, About Learning’s learning styles, data from student work, and multiple perspectives – including the student’s! – as the basis for knowing each student (and ourselves) well.
    Identifying the ways in which language is used as a means of maintaining the status quo, reinforcing existing power and social structures is a critical beginning step to addressing the significant inequities in our system. For instance, talking about “achievement gaps” maintains a distance from responsibility and accountability, and in fact implies responsibility outside our system. When we talk about “achievement disparities” we identify our collective responsibility as a society. Check out Discourse I/Discourse II T-Chart from “Changing the Discourse in Schools” by Eugene Eubanks and Ralph Parish, downloadable at for more examples of how our language impacts our perceptions, assumptions, actions – and, ultimately, our students’ lives.