Person-First Language is Important

I’m writing this to elaborate on a quick post I did on Instagram explaining/reiterating (I’m sure I’ve said it before) that Audrey is Audrey first; a child with Down’s syndrome second. So she is never a “Down’s kid” she isn’t a “Down’s syndrome girl” she is a child who happens to have Down’s syndrome. My little Instagram rant stemmed from the following…

I arrived for the open evening at Audrey’s school on a sunny summer’s evening, listening to Desert Island Discs, feeling excited about my little girl’s future in mainstream school.

I joined a queue to buy school uniform, chatted to some mums I had met before and gleaned information from these pros (with kids already attending the school) on what to expect.

I sat down clutching the welcome pack with Audrey’s name and class on the front and by chance sat behind the mother of one of Audrey’s nursery friends – (I could see the name and class on her welcome pack) and I could see they were in the same class. Everything was falling into place.

The teachers spoke at the front of the assembly hall and took us through the basics; uniform, PTA, after school club, forest school (so on trend). And then we all got up and filed into our specific classrooms to mingle and meet our child’s future teacher.

For some strange reason, I was quite focused on meeting Audrey’s teacher, but the thought of her 1:1 had barely crossed my mind… at least I thought it hadn’t, but I realise now I had already pictured her – in her 20s, enthusiastic, dedicated to children with special needs, passionate about it, a Makaton pro, a bit quirky.

So I guess it was a surprise to meet the lady who was older and not physically the picture I had in my head. And then, as surprisingly as she’d appeared; she made a bad impression. I asked about her experience and she told me how she had been working with a “Down’s boy” at the school and then she’d been at a special school a few miles away which had “loads of Down’s kids”. Outside I was smiling and nodding, inside I was crushed. How could this be someone passionate about people with Down’s syndrome? She doesn’t even know how to speak to me without offending me! She doesn’t understand person-first language. How can this person be the chosen 1:1 for Audrey? It made no sense.

I was awkward and made some comments about regretting not preparing with questions and I moved to the queue to meet the teacher.

The 1:1 popped up again, asking me about Makaton signing and why Audrey’s nursery had corrected her (she showed me the sign, I corrected her too). Such a minor “hiccup” you might think, but at this point I was getting anxious inside, imagining Audrey bonding with a woman who was seemingly getting everything wrong.

The thing is, people get person-first language wrong all the time and most of the time it doesn’t bother me that much. I don’t like to be pedantic (ok, I kind of do) but hey, I was made that way… in the same way that a cafe might list “sandwich’s” for sale and I will despair (but not run in asking them to correct the laminated menu), I despair a little over someone saying “a Down’s kid” but rarely take the time to correct them.

However. This was meeting a professional in a school. Someone who has clearly worked with children with Down’s syndrome for years and someone who has been employed to spend a lot of time with my daughter. So in this scenario, I should have said something, but because awkward conversations are not my thing, I ranted at other mums, had a rough night’s sleep, ranted a bit more to friends the next day and finally sent an email to the Head of Inclusion at the school to explain what happened.

What really gave me the confidence to write to the school, was the support I had from mum friends (those with typical children), who agreed this language was not on. They made me feel like I wasn’t over reacting.

This all happened last week and having had some time to calm myself and reflect, I had a meeting at the school this morning and I’m pleased to say I feel reassured that this was an unfortunate mistake and that they (the school) are more than versed in the correct language and will be ensuring all the teaching assistant are reminded of the correct terminology.

It was also helpful to hear that the 1:1 had come to the open evening off her own back because was excited to meet me, because she is excited to be Audrey’s teaching assistant. I can step back now and know that she does care, she will learn from this and that this bad experience can help the school, parents and teaching assistants learn something moving forward.

In fact I’m already discussing with another mum from the T21 crew (who was my immediate “What would she have done?” thought when I was faced with the dodgy language) a way of using this experience to create a “going to school pack” that can help schools and families learn from this dodgy experience.

Hopefully no one is reading this wondering what all the fuss is about, but if you are, then please just know that words are important. Audrey is so very precious to me and I want her to have the best start at school as she can possibly have and this begins and ends with her being treated as an individual.

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