Monday, June 15, 2009

Reply to NAMI: The Trouble with People First Language and Its Unintendced Consequences

Please eavesdrop on this letter to an official at NAMI (National Association on Mental Illness.

I’ve been given a sabbatical leave to design and work towards implementation of a Neurodiversity Project at Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor, Michigan. My name is Jean Kearns Miller, and besides being a full-time, tenured English instructor at the College, I am proud publisher, editor, and contributing writer of the first and, for five years only book addressing autism spectrum disorders in women.*

My own official diagnoses are chronic, recurrent major depression and AD/HD-I (inattentive type) with Asperger “traits.” The students who have driven my project have had dxes all over the DSM-IV, and certainly they do want to educate classmates, faculty, and the staff with which they interact about how it is with them. “I’m one of you but guess what? I’m one of them too.” Or: “I’m one of them but guess whatP I’m one of you, too.”

But a critical issue for all of us is empowerment. And this can’t be had through people first language and the ideology generating it because the only thing you can get from it is “I’m one of you.” People first language means that as long as I work very hard to appear NT (neurotypical) and relegate my entire humanity to servicing neurotypicals, I will make the case that I’m just like you. Truth be told, I’m not like you. And the more your people first language (and ideology) constrains and marginalizes us, the more our circumstances will stagnate despite public impressions conjured by “awareness.”.

I recently joined NAMI and feel sure your motives and all the substantial, heartfelt efforts of you and NAMI do worlds of good. No question at all. Enormous thanks! But I want to give you this perspective to inform your future work and request a turn inward, to”people with,” who inadvertantly become the Elephant Man as ambassadors to the NT world.

Can you envision a more in-your-face approach that would educate the public not only about the what those with psychiatric diagnoses experience from their dx but also what they experience as a result of the attitudes and behavior of the very audience you hope so kindly to reach?

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