Tag: special education

New Podcast Update: Pressing Disability Issues and a Personal Update!

New Podcast Update: Pressing Disability Issues and a Personal Update!


Hello everyone and welcome back to the legally abled podcast. My name is Ashley Jacobson I am a disability rights attorney, a disability counselor and assessment specialist, and a physically disabled woman living in the state of Michigan. And I’m so thrilled to be bringing this podcast back. I created a little legal evil podcast when I was in law school. After I saw a lot of injustice is happening against the disability community and I wanted a way to raise awareness of that and also share the many many resources that I’ve acquired. In the past, gosh, I would say, 13 to 15 years working in the disability arena and living with disability. So some things have changed since I started the podcast, I am no longer a law student, I am a lawyer, which is very exciting I’m loving what I’m doing.
I’m also a disabled entrepreneur, I have my own law firm called Jacobson law and advocacy. And I have my own consulting firm, which allows me to do, counseling, on adopting to disability accommodations assessments for the workplace. And for schools including universities and grad school, and really sink my teeth into all of the ways in which
I can provide trainings resources and counseling to people with disabilities of all ages, and that’s through my consulting firm called adaptive inclusion. So, my life is very disability centric personally living with lupus and other chronic illnesses, as well as working as a disability rights attorney.
So there have been a lot of changes, I would say over the last year and I’m really excited to be bringing this podcast back on a weekly basis. I’m going to definitely do at least once a week. And each podcast will broken up into 15 to 30 minutes segments, because I received some feedback from people saying that, especially for certain types of disabilities. The loss of focus might be something that’s difficult in longer podcasts so they, you know, my, so not a little bit or get distracted or have difficulties with memory and sensory and things that caused them to go back and try to find where they left off. And so I will be chopping these episodes up into 15 to 30 minute blocks of time.
And I’m really receptive to any feedback, especially if it will accommodate your disability if it will make this podcast more accessible for you, for your loved ones. Please do not be afraid, let me know.

So I wanted to do a little bit of a roundup now that you’ve got your updates on me on current events, and issues facing the disability community because I’m going to be diving into all of these topics, weekly, and interviewing some truly amazing guest so I’m really honored to have the opportunity to interview.
I’m really honored to have the opportunity to interview. And I already have some awesome people lined up Disability Advocates disabled writers actors policy writers.
Politicians attorneys educators and other counselors.
And I want to focus on the key issues in the Disability Justice Movement, while also having a little bit of fun and share her favorite taste of disability in the media, because there is some incredible media content out there for people with disabilities,

Whether it’s on social media, or TV or movie is, we are coming for it all.
And so, you know, in the last year with the covenant team pandemic.
It has never been more glaring that people with disabilities are treated as less than or not worthy, or not as important, then they’re not disabled peers.
Not only did we have to hear, politicians, people on the news, friends, community members say that it didn’t matter if we had more severe symptoms of covert if we were to catch it.
Because our lives weren’t as valuable.
And they would say this messaging through things like.
It’s only the vulnerable people who are affected by coping, which we know to be not true.
But then they would clarify that the vulnerable are old people, and disabled people. People with underlying conditions.
And so for over a year.

I’ve heard leaders. People have no saying that essentially it didn’t matter. They weren’t going to wear masks, they weren’t going to social distance. Because if they caught coven, it wouldn’t be that big of a deal.
When I was holed up in my home for over a year, I didn’t go anywhere but the pharmacy, and usually it was my husband going to the pharmacy and going to the grocery store, or to the doctor.
I did have surgery during the pandemic, which was a very interesting experience, to say the least.
But that surgery was delayed for about six or seven months while you know most surgeries were on hiatus, providing emergency medical care to people with COPD, which is understandable.
But it was not understandable, was the lack of empathy that I experienced daily from strangers on the internet to famous people who just didn’t get that there are millions and millions of people in every state of the United States, who have disabilities who contribute to their communities, support families have friends and loved ones that care for them and that they care for deeply. And many of them work. Some of them don’t and they volunteer. Many are prominent advocates online and in person.

And yet, we were truly treated like we were disposable.
So I wrote an article about that it is up on LegallyAbled.com I wrote it initially, I want to say it was in April of 2020, it is now may of 2021.

And while some things have changed. some things remain the same.
I am fully vaccinated, which is great news.
I did get covert after being fully vaccinated. So I urge everyone to be careful, even if they’re vaccinated.
And because while I was careful. You know, it’s still happened. And while I’m very, very grateful.
Because I feel as though having the vaccine allowed me to experience co bed in a still pretty severe way, I would say, but much less severe and scary that I’m sure it would have been had I not been vaccinated.
So about a month ago, my husband co bed.
And one of going to the hospital, really messed with his blood pressure. He’s doing much better now.
But then shortly thereafter I woke up in the middle of the night, and I felt like I was choking. And that was really scary because I don’t normally experienced that, but I do have autoimmune disease and so I wasn’t sure if it was related to that or not. And I went to my primary care doctor first thing that day, and I said you know I don’t know maybe I should get back on doing my breathing treatments. And he said I’m going to test you for COPD. And I truly thought there was no way I had it I mean I’m such a hermit. And I don’t go anywhere. And I knew my husband had it but I was also fully vaccinated and I heard that it was pretty rare. I think they say point 1% of people who are fully vaccinated still get it but again they probably have less severe symptoms than they would have had they not been vaccinated. They still, but I mean what are the odds I’m in that point 01 percent of people. Turns out for me and my body that’s pretty good for that so I’m grateful to have mostly healed from that.
You probably can’t tell from me rambling on this podcast, but I am still having some shortness of breath.
If you’re watching this video. You can see that I’m going to let this flare up right now I’ve got a rash on my face and my body I think is just kind of bouncing back in its own unique way from having coven and having an autoimmune disease during that. But speaking of the vaccine.
One of the other updates that highlighted the way in which disabled people your view during this pandemic. Was that many of them were not given access to the vaccine appropriately, in my state, the state of Michigan.

Essential workers like and mostly were given access to the vaccine first that makes sense, right it’s a public health crisis they’re providing a central services.
We need to protect them, they’re valued members of our society.
But then, at least in my state.
And in a lot of other states and I’m seeing this to where they open up vaccines to people 65 years or older.
And while a big portion of the disability community is in that each group.
There are millions of people with disabilities who had been told for over a year.
In some cases, that they were vulnerable to the most severe symptoms of co op ed.
And yet, because they weren’t over the age of 65. They weren’t given access to the vaccine.
In fact, caregivers of people with disabilities were given access to the vaccine sooner than the disabled individual themselves. That’s a huge problem. We’re literally assessing whose lives lives are worth saving. And we’re doing it in a very public way, a very direct way. And we’re sending the message to a huge chunk of the disability community that they’re always the last right i mean they’re always the last to come to mind. They’re the last to get opportunities to get protected and the statistics are even more staggering for black disabled individuals.

We found that in many states, and I’m a white disabled woman, but just from my professional background I’ve been keeping track of the statistics, and the reports that are coming out from different counties in different states, and even different countries and black disabled individuals were disproportionately affected by lack of access to the vaccine, lack of access to adequate covert testing and treatment. And so not only was the disability community dealing with this negative messaging throughout the whole pandemic and they’re still dealing with that.
But they’re also dealing with life threatening issues here. And yet, throughout this pandemic.
I really heard anybody reporting on it outside of myself and many Disability Advocates online but in the mainstream media. It wasn’t really that reported on. And so that was also disappointing.

Other updates pertaining to disability current events and issues that are important to our community.
In the last year there’s been a lot of awareness and really an uprising to no longer be complacent or accept the police brutality that’s inflicted against black people.
Black disabled individuals are among the most affected by police violence and brutality.
As a disability rights lawyer, this is not new information to me, it’s not something that I just became aware of it’s not something that I just started advocating against.
But the past year I’ve seen a lot of people who normally didn’t pay that much attention to police brutality start to want to learn about it and speak about it and while some of it was performative Alice ship meaning they talked about it for a few days and then moved on. And I’m hoping, truly really desperately hoping that this isn’t something that we push past or push aside, black children with disabilities have a higher rate of being more severely punished.
When it comes to having a disability and being in school.
They tend to be seen as more as troublemakers and their weight nondisabled peers, even more so than their weight disabled peers.

Even when that’s not the case that bias is there in a lot of our education system.
And then once you get into juvenile law, which is part of what I do is I represent kids who are dealing with the court system, you find that, depending on the detention center. One study found that up to 70% seven zero percent of kids in juvenile detention have disability. When it comes to the adult prison population. Again, this is just what’s documented, and what’s verified. I’m sure this number is actually much higher, but it’s around 40% of the adult inmate population has a disability.
And then you consider how disability rights are required to be provided for when you’re questioned by police. When you’re going through a juvenile adjudication, which is essentially what they call a juvenile criminal case, the system works a little bit differently for kids and adults. But when you’re going through the either as an adult or as a child, and you’re dealing with police and social workers, and attorneys and judges or referees.

You have disability rights in those settings. But if you pull aside each of these participants in our legal system.
What you’ll find is, even the most well intentioned individuals don’t have the background and disability that they need to be able to assess how disability, played a role, either in the incident alleged or in the courtroom.
And that’s why I became a lawyer. I was working as a counselor what using my master’s degree and my nationwide certification in disability counseling and assessment. It’s called a rehabilitation counselor, which is not the same thing as a substance use disorder counselor that’s a totally different fields, but sometimes people think that because they hear rehabilitation and the name, but rehabilitation counselors are providing counseling, that empower people with disabilities in the workplace in schools and in their home situations or they’re independent living or wherever they find themselves in the community really. And I was doing that, loving that, and then I had over one week I had three separate clients deal with a legal matter. I’m deal with the police. And I noticed how horribly those situations were handled and I went to find an attorney who adequately understood disability and how it would affect the clients ability to navigate the legal system with the barriers the legal system has, in their way, that are discriminatory. And I couldn’t find that. And so I thought I’ll just sign up for the offset and see, and then went to law school did it in two years went out for the bar exam past it. And I’ll get into the bar exam at another time because there’s a lot of discrimination against people with disabilities in the Michigan bar exam, a lot of accommodations being approved but then not provided on the day when you show up. I also have an article written about that and my experience on LegallyAbled.com. And as a lawyer, you know, I’ve seen many clients, interacting with the police.
As kids and as adults. And I followed these national stories that the disability community really rallied behind and advocates and raises awareness and provide the resources to speak up against it and to reach out to politicians who can make a difference and reverse things and all of that, but there’s such a long way to go.

And so in 2020, the disability community also had an awakening in the sense that the people, the disability advocates who tend to do the best on social media, they get the most endorsements that have the most followers are typically white, disabled people who have physical disabilities. Many of them are in wheelchairs or they have limb difference, and their disabilities are kind of packaged in a way that works for them, and is great and we should do that they should get those endorsements and they work hard for their pages. But we’re still needing to correct the bias in the disabled media that we consume. And so I just encourage everybody if you’re on social media, whether it be Tick tock, Instagram, Facebook, or any other app that pops up there. I encourage you to follow people with disabilities who look different than you are different, they’re different race, they have a different disability.

They are from different countries they have, they speak, maybe different languages and immerse yourself in content that is not your day to day experience, because I can tell you that it’s allowed me to be a more well rounded individual, and we’re active participants in the disability community and advocacy movement, as well as just a more intelligent person. Because you know I’m a lawyer, I’m a counselor I am a speaker, and the smartest people I’ve learned. Know that the learning never ends. And so they’re always going to be things that I know and they’re always going to be things that I still need to learn.
And so I just encourage you to go out there and follow some people who expand your understanding.
Especially pertaining to disability and our sexuality, to people who are from the LGBT q plus community who have disabilities.

People who are black and have disabilities people who are immigrants that have disabilities Native Americans with disabilities, really expand your day to day content that you’ll consume.
And you’ll find that it doesn’t necessarily have to include a lot of time to follow people. And you’re going to be on social media, anyway, so you might as well just follow some new people learn some new things. In just that and use that moving forward,

Other really important things that to the disability community right now include the climate crisis. People with disabilities are disproportionately affected by natural disasters, changes in the weather and changes in climate.
If you haven’t gotten a chance I highly recommend that you watch the gratitude Berg documentary on Hulu.
It’s a great example of somebody who’s very well known for advocating on environmental issues, but also discusses her disability, quite a bit. And some of you might not know that she has autism. She is very open about being autistic. And she’s also very open about having anxiety and depression, and having some really low periods in her life in which her environmental advocacy and understanding of her disability, helped her and kind of push on.
And so I highly recommend that you check that out but the ways in which people disabilities are affected by climate change are evident, if you look at any huge natural disaster or environmental disaster that’s happened in the last couple of years.

We saw the wildfires in California. We had millions of people with disabilities struggling to find accessible shelters meaning there’s a bed that they can get in and out of their doors that they can go through to get into the facility.
There aren’t restrooms, that they can use that are accessible for wheelchairs walkers canes medical devices and like.
Then, when you look at hurricanes and tornadoes. People with disabilities on occasion are abandoned by caretakers especially if they’re not loved ones like if they’re in a nursing home, and they’re just kind of left to fend for themselves.
Additionally, with weather changes with flooding. It restricts access to sidewalks and roads with ice and snow. People aren’t shoveling sidewalks, like they’re supposed to be in their counties. And so, People with disabilities have been stranded in those instances.

And so we’re looking at these huge Disability Justice issues, and you might be thinking, Well, what can I do to change these issues have been around for a long time? I firmly believe that one of the ways in which you can make concrete change in your community today is to investigate employment discrimination in your area, maybe at your company that you work or own, or your small business association and train on disability and inclusion and the myths that are out there. When it comes to accommodations and cost of accessibility.
Most the vast, vast majority I would say 95% of all accommodations that make workplaces accessible for people with disabilities are low cost or no cost to the employer and employers have more employees with disabilities, I’m a real.

That being said, hiring discrimination is still one of the most pressing issues.
When it comes to Disability Justice in 2020 80%, eight zero percent of people with disabilities were unemployed, compare that to 40% of non disabled people being unemployed. It’s a massive difference. And sure it was a pandemic in 2020. But this isn’t a new problem. The unemployment rate is something that frankly isn’t being addressed quickly enough, and a huge reason for that is that the non disabled community people without disabilities misunderstand what disability is what it looks like, what it looks like and how you can employ and benefit from a person with a disability working in your workplace. So we’ve talked about a lot in this podcast episode. And a lot of it has been kind of heavy stuff.

So now I want to talk about the light happy things that are happening.
This year we saw a huge effort by disabled writers and Hollywood disabled actors producers. And we’re seeing.
Amazing. Funny accurate disability in our media. Granted, is still in less than 1% of all media.
So, We need to be out there and more. We need to be given the opportunity to be out there and more, I should say.
But one of the shows that I’m absolutely loving right now is Special on Netflix. Now, it’s not appropriate for children, there are adult themes and language. But my gosh, it’s just so refreshing to see an adult comedy show that talks about disability accurately talks about adult issues living with disability as a disabled creator, writer, actor, actually, more than one, and has all of the funny uplifting moments just as much if not more than be depressing discriminatory moments. I will be reviewing Season 1 as we wait for Season 2 which comes out on Netflix on May 20th!

Thank you for tuning in to the Legally Abled Podcast! My name is Ashley Jacobson, and I will see you in the next episode!

Disability and Police Brutality: Methods for Protecting Yourself

I recently wrote a piece on the dangerous effects of police brutality against members of the disability community. As a disability rehabilitation counselor and disability rights attorney, I’ve implemented and shared methods for protecting yourself from the police with my counseling and legal clients. Now, it is more evident than ever that I need to share these strategies with as many people as I can. Click the link here to read more.


Ashley Jacobson, Esq., MA, CRC

Disclaimer: any advice not given in a personalized consultation setting should not be construed or received as legal advice. To receive legal feedback, seek the advice of an attorney who specializes in your need, in your geographic area. This post is educational in nature.

Self-Determination: how to love, but empower your loved one with a disability

Self-Determination: how to love, but empower your loved one with a disability

Self-determination is a tricky process for people with disabilities because it operates on a continuum.  Life is unpredictable, and for the most part–so is disability.  But, with self-determination, the person with a disability can regain some level of control and dictate the choices and direction of her life.  Self-determination is a concept where a person has the  confidence and ability to decide and move forward with the best, next-steps in his own life.  Not what you or I think is best, but what they want for their own lives.  For many, especially those with disabilities, well-meaning loved ones have in a lifetime of protecting the person with a disability (PWD), have actually kind of sheltered or unintentionally taken control over the life of the PWD.

It’s difficult for loved ones, and I understand that better than most.  I have been guilty of being a helicopter constantly propelling what I thought was best over the person I love with a disability.  It’s incredibly challenging to shut that off because you love that person and want what is best for them.  I know it may seem like I’m asking a lot for you to back down (or if you are a PWD, to take control)…but please, hear me out.

When I was a special educator, and then a rehabilitation counselor (CRC), I saw many students and young adults with disabilities that had their differences in ability.  They had skills that needed more developing, skills they were not capable of displaying, and skills that made them unique assets in the best way.  However, those unique-asset skills were often under-utilized because they had not practiced them independently on their own incentive or triggering.  For example, they could do really well in an interview after having practiced and trained, but they were going on job interviews below their skill level because someone (though again, well-meaning) told them this job would be “so good for you!”  Or, they were not going to job interviews at all because their loved ones were really (and understandably) nervous about them putting themselves out there and taking a massive step towards independence.

The biggest limitation in the life of any person is their own belief that they are limited.  Yes, of course individuals (with disability or temporarily able-bodied) have to be realistic.  I’m not saying someone who has never dribbled a basketball, or someone who has played in a community basketball league–has the skill to try out for the NBA.  But I am asking for you to not make assumptions about their abilities or limitations, because when you assume their limitations, they see themselves as inherently limited.  Really sit down with the person, and ask him what he would like to learn.  Ask him what skills are important for adults to possess.  Objectively think of the many skills he has already learned, and try to compare those to the skills he wants to learn.

I am not suggesting that anyone just shut down and remove themselves out of the PWD’s life in one clean break, no longer helping the PWD with anything.  It is a process, and of course you will never just be out of their lives–you love them!  Nonetheless, self-determination is learned and blossoms in an environment that encourages growth, independence, and inclusion.  This is one of the reasons why so many adults with disabilities phase out of the public education system, and wind up under-employed or unemployed.  Further, when students learn skills at school relating to independence, they lose those skills if they are not generalized and practiced in the home-environment.  And trust me, I completely understand that as a loved one of a PWD you are busy and have many, many responsibilities for yourself and your family.  That’s why I want to give you some tools and strategies for encouraging the independence of the PWD so that maybe it can at the same time lessen your work load and empower your loved one.

It is difficult for many people without disabilities to break down the appropriate steps in fostering and empowering independence in a PWD.  Every person is different, but here is an example of how one could foster the self-determination process in an adult with a disability (Also: You can reach out to someone who works in this field–like me!–if you want guidance on appropriate steps for a specific person…again, progress is a continuum with steps forward and steps back, and that is okay.  This does not have to happen overnight!).

Self-determination skills: Determining food choices

  1. Watch a cooking show on tv that discusses nutrition and healthy eating
  2. Practice cooking simple meals in the kitchen with the PWD, emphasizing safety and nutrition (boiling water for pasta, making pasta, cleaning up after making pasta, with canned sauce)
  3. The PWD cooks on his own while the loved one is not overseeing, but is in the general area in case the PWD has a question
  4. Show the PWD where to find coupons, and discuss how much food really costs
  5. Watch tv shows about the health effects of not eating nutritious (but don’t be too scary about it, especially if the PWD is someone who can get easily overwhelmed or experiences severe anxiety–in this case you can discuss food choices in terms that are not so daunting with regards to the health consequences)
  6. Have the PWD go to the grocery store with you and have him hold the list (if possible, have him read and check off the list as you go–if he is not able to read, that’s okay too!  You can sit with him and go through grocery store inserts, pamphlets, magazines, coupon clippings, etc.  Just cut those pictures out and make the list out of pictures.  You can even draw the pictures!)
  7. After practicing #6 a few times, and if he is safely independent in public (as in, won’t go with strangers, won’t give his money to strangers, isn’t a harm to himself or others), bring him to the grocery store and have him gather the food on the list while you wait at the front of the store with a book/magazine
  8. After practicing #7 a few times, practice money skills.  Discuss pricing of food and different ways you can make payment.  Go through #7 and at the end of each time you shop, have the PWD give the money for payment to the cashier.  If the PWD gets nervous, that’s normal.  You can go at times when the grocery store is less busy, or teach him how to use the self-checkout line, but ultimately practice will help him feel more comfortable.
  9. After practicing #8, and if he is safely independent in public, bring the PWD to the grocery store and wait in the car as he shops for the food on the list, and pays on his own.
  10. Have the PWD make the grocery list on his own, check it over to make sure it covers essential items that are financially-responsible choices.
  11. If not yet learned, teach the PWD transportation options like the bus.  Public transportation systems have disability-accessible bussing but the more inclusive the better (again, depending on the actual, realistic abilities of the PWD).  A PWD should live and operate in the least restrictive environment as appropriate.  It may take time, and it will be a little daunting for both you and the PWD, but that is a normal part of growing up and in time and with practice, he could gain much independence and allow more free time and balancing of responsibilities for you and your household.
  12. Have the PWD look up transportation options on his own, and then schedule it on his own, go food shopping, pay, and return home on his own.
  13. Combine steps 1-12.

Again, this is just a generic example.  Some of these steps can be combined or adjusted if the PWD is more advanced, or they can be broken down even more.  I’ve broken down the process of making a PB&J into nearly 60 steps before for a client with a disability.  The most important thing is that we don’t just give up and do something for a person with a disability simply because it’s the easier and quicker thing to do.  Sure, there may be days when you do not have time to pre-teach, teach, and re-teach.  When you do have time though, the best way you can love a PWD is by loving their independent drive and spirit.  After all, you cannot and will not always be around and in times of need the PWD should feel competent to do as much as he is capable.

This post does not come from a place of judgment.  I’ve been there, personally and professionally.  I know what it is like to see a loved one go through something difficult and have to maneuver life-changes after the fact.  This is just guidance on a tricky part about loving a PWD, and as always I am here if you have any questions!  Feel free to email me at legallyabled@gmail.com


Thank you for reading and sharing,

Ashley Jacobson, JD, MA, CRC

Disability Expert and Advocate





Person-first language (and the “R word”)

In a culture where there is a clear divide between those who just want to “stop being sooo politically correct” and those who want to make sure they are being respectful, it can be challenging to know what to say (and what not to say).  It becomes even more of a challenge when you are attempting to talk about a population of people or a person in particular, and you are not 100% sure on the right terminology to use.

So, hopefully this post will clear things up a bit when it comes to discussing a person with a disability and why this topic matters.

So first—why does what you say matter?  Language is one of the most significant indicators of emotion.  Language dictates how you process the thoughts, feelings and actions of another person in your brain.  Language is used in gathering your perception of others and your environment.

Language directly affects how you treat others, because it demonstrates how you think about them.

Historically, people with disabilities have been (wrongfully) perceived as weak, pitiful burdens in our society.  From the “handicapped” label first used to describe homeless veterans with (what we now know as) Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, who were sitting on the street with their “caps in hand” asking for money, to the middle-schoolers (and many adults) using the “R word” to make fun of their friends when they are acting stupid, our society has made it very clear that it was deemed socially acceptable to stigmatize people with physical and mental differences.

I have worked with the disability community for over a decade.  In seeing many challenges my clients faced involving the legal system, I decided to go to law school.  I am a law student, and I complete my studies this August.  In my current law school program, which I have loved, I have encountered professors, classmates and administrators who (knowing our school has students with disabilities in attendance) talk about people with disabilities like trash.  A professor in a class I greatly enjoy, in response to me saying I want to represent people with disabilities, said, “Oh, you want to represent the meek and pathetic.”  To which I did not hide my shocked expression as he quickly moved on to the next topic.

I have many professors who are socially conscious, and respectful towards students and other people with disabilities.  But, I also have heard professors refer to accommodations as “special treatment” and refer to people with mental illness as “crazies” while rotating their index finger in a circle next to their head.  These are accomplished, intelligent, highly-educated professionals.  Yet still, training on disability appropriateness and inclusion has not been emphasized in their studies.  These are attorneys and professors who represent and teach people with disabilities on a daily basis, even if they don’t know it.  They aren’t bad people.  They’re just misinformed and desensitized based on societal conditioning that people with disabilities aren’t worthy of respect.

This stops right here, right now.  It never was, and never will be acceptable.  This is not a recommendation, but a requirement.  This is a heads-up that what you say matters, and if you use offensive language you won’t be accepted, and it isn’t cool.

Over 52 million people in this country have been diagnosed with a disability—over 2 million people in Michigan (where I live).

Disability is part of the human experience.  It’s not grim, but it is the truth that at some point in your life you will have a disability.  If you haven’t yet, it could happen tomorrow or in 20 years.  But you cannot deny that at some point, as you age, you will face trauma and change, physical and emotional.  In living life, you are putting your body in a position where it wears down over time.  You will experience unpredictability in your life and you will have to learn to accept it, adapt to it, and thrive with it.

In that moment, when you are likely dealing with extreme physical and emotional changes, and grieving over abilities lost and limitations imposed, would you want to be insulted or would you want to be respected?  You wouldn’t want people to categorize you as a burden, or incapable, or unworthy—because you are not any of those things simply because of a physical or emotional disability.

You’d want to be seen as a person, first and above all else.

This is where the person-first language shift began.  The disability community and its advocates decided that someone needed to display how to appropriately talk to and about people with disabilities.

First, you call the person by his/her name.  If the disability is not relevant to the conversation, it is not necessary nor appropriate to attach it to your description of the person.

When disability is relevant to the conversation, use person-first language.  Instead of saying “disabled man” say “man with a disability.”  Instead of saying “schizophrenic” say “woman with schizophrenia.”  It takes practice to get in the habit of using the right phrasing, but it’s important.  You are literally and semantically putting the person first.  This emphasizes that person, their abilities, and their individuality over any disability that might follow.

Person-first language should be your foundation.  If the person with the disability prefers you to use other language or phrasing, always comply with what language they feel comfortable with, but NEVER use the “R word.”

Let’s talk about the “R word” for a minute.  The word “retarded” was part of a clinical diagnosis (mental retardation), that our society deemed an insult for someone they perceived as stupid, irrational, or ridiculous.  So, our society decided to use this part of the clinical diagnosis, not toward those with a diagnosed intellectual disability, but instead towards people without disabilities as a way to criticize or ostracize them.

Because our selfish, rude, and ignorant society twisted this clinical diagnosis into such a horrendous insult, the word lost its original meaning completely.  The word became a weapon instead of a condition.  A simple word began to carry so much hate and stigma in its delivery, that this large community of people with disabilities had to actually protest and advocate that medically and legally the word be removed.

To anyone out there who responds to a request to stop using that word by saying, “but technically I am right, because that’s what doctor’s use,” you’re wrong.  You’re also (likely) not a doctor.  It is not used in laws, textbooks, nor in practice.  You have a brave girl named Rosa to thank for that.  Rosa’s law was passed in 2010, and if you want to read the actual law that was passed, you can find it here. 

Rosa was a strong, smart, driven young girl who decided that she was tired of being made fun of, and tired of others using the “R word” to make fun of others.  With the support of many senators, representatives, and public advocacy campaigns, Rosa took this change in language into her own hands and asked the government to remove the “R word” from its laws.  Rosa was successful in achieving this goal, after “Rosa’s Law” was signed and approved by former President Barack Obama in 2010.  Additionally, after seeing the mess that was the movie Tropic Thunder, the “Spread the Word to End the Word” campaign spread the message that using the “R word” to make fun of someone in the media and socially is unacceptable.

Most importantly, if you are wondering other reasons as to why you should not use the “R word” besides it being technically incorrect, offensive, and ignorant, you just shouldn’t use it because people with disabilities don’t want you to.  It’s that simple.  Be a decent human being to other human beings.  You will someday be in their shoes, and you’ll want someone to show you empathy and respect when that happens.  But even if you are the rare exception that is not going to have a disability someday, it takes more energy to spread hateful language than it does to just be decent.

For these reasons, you also want to be really aware of how you perceive people with disabilities.  This is where it can get tricky for many people without disabilities, because you may not be using words that you find to be offensive, but you are inadvertently mislabeling or stereotyping a person with a disability.

You may mean well when you say someone is “inspiring” simply because they are living with a disability.  But when you say that someone is inspiring for doing things that a person typically does each day, it’s more than a little condescending.  We know, you are acknowledging that there may be more things a person with a disability has to do to achieve the same results you can in your day-to-day activities.  But when you say that someone is “inspiring” or “overcoming her disability” in doing typical daily functions, you are also sending the message that her life is so awful and unimaginable, that she must have to overcome her horrible circumstances.  Don’t be patronizing.  Be respectful.

What does it boil down to?  People with disabilities don’t want your pity or sympathy.  They want your respect and empathy.  When you say someone is “suffering with…” or “overcoming…” or “confined to/by…” you are invoking feelings of pity, your inclination is to feel sorry for that person.  It’s like saying, “his life is so awful, he is suffering/overcoming/confined by his disability.”

Instead, you can use (when the disability is relevant) “sustained a brain injury,” “diagnosed with…” or “living with (insert disability here).”  This language normalizes disability, instead of dramatizing it.  Disability may be part of that person’s life, but it’s not their whole life and it certainly is not who they are.  People with disabilities adapt to their differences, or even utilize their differences to become successful.

I appreciate those who have stuck with me here.  This is a good cheat sheet I use in many of my presentations:

person-first chart

Also, keep in mind that certain disability populations take pride in their label because they do not see it as a stereotyped label but instead use the term as a way of indicating a community of like-experienced individuals.  Person-first language should always be your starting-point—your foundation.  As I stated earlier, if the individual states he wants you to refer to him in another way, it’s okay to refer to that person using the term he has provided.  Always start back at these guidelines though with new people that you meet.


Thank you for caring and sharing.


Ashley Jacobson, MA, CRC