August 11, 2016

Shifting to people first language

I’m sure we’ve all heard of the We Need Diverse Books campaign, begun in 2014 to promote diversity in children’s literature. But have you heard of the campaign to promote “people first” language? According to The Arc, an organization promoting rights for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, approximately one out of every five Americans has a disability. Having a disability or special needs is only a small part of who an individual is, and to identify a person by that label is focusing on that a single aspect of the individual as a whole.

We here at NoveList have recognized this issue and have begun to change our subject headings to recognize the importance of the individual over the disability.  Not only is people first language preferred by advocacy groups and many of those affected, but now subject headings will be grouped together by the individual first and not the disability.  

Using women as an example, here are some of the changes we’ve made:

  • Blind women ⇒ Women who are blind
  • Terminally ill women ⇒ Women with terminal illnesses
  • Dyslexic women ⇒ Women with dyslexia

If you search NoveList for the title Wonder, by R. J. Palacio (TI Wonder AND AU Palacio) and scroll to the Subject Headings on the More About This Book tab, you will see the first heading has been changed to Boys with disfigurements from Disfigured boys. A search for Jan-Philipp Sendker’s The Art of Hearing Heartbeats (TI Art of hearing heartbeats) will display the heading Men who are blind, formerly Blind men.

With these changes being implemented, you can now search by the name of the disability or special need more easily, allowing you to find more titles. Are you looking for titles about individuals with diabetes? Before we changed the headings, if you wanted to pull titles for anything related to diabetes, you performed a search for SU Diabet* (the wildcard was necessary to pull in “diabetic” individuals as well as the disorder. Now, simply search for SU Diabetes (no wildcard!), and you will pull in the same titles.  If you want to focus on the type of individual (for example, women), you would focus in on that aspect of your search -- SU Women with diabetes.

Is one of your younger patrons looking for realistic fiction which contains a young character with a disability? Search for SU Children with disabilities AND GN Realistic fiction 

What if your patron comes in asking for an audiobook (CDs, please!)  featuring someone with Down syndrome? You can search SU Down syndrome AND FO Spoken word compact disc  to find her book. 

To further highlight titles featuring characters with disabilities, we use the appeal term Ability diverse on fiction for juvenile audiences. If a teacher is looking for a picture book featuring a character with a disability, search AP Ability diverse AND GN Picture books for children

We will continue to make improvements to our headings for those groups of individuals with special needs and disabilities, so stay tuned!

Suzanne Temple is a Metadata Librarian at NoveList.


Comment from Richelle Brown on August 19, 2016

It is good that the new subject headings can pull in titles about disabled people. That is a good argument for changing them. It is NOT true that “people first language is preferred by those affected.” How did you come to this conclusion? It is true that it is preferred by some disabled people, but not all. I am disabled and have been involved in disability activism, and many people in this community feel that people first language does not reflect their experiences, and may be stigmatizing in and of itself.  Here are some arguments against people first language: and In my personal experience, I have frequently found that people come to the conclusion to use people first language based on statements by certain advocacy groups, NOT by asking a wide variety of disabled people themselves. I want people to use whatever language for themselves that they find empowering, but it is very frustrating to me to see blanket statements like the above.

Comment from Suzanne Temple on August 19, 2016

Thank you for your feedback Richelle. I appreciate your perspective, especially as one who has a disability. I myself have a little boy with Down syndrome, so this is close to my heart. You are correct that this is a reflection of advocacy groups, but it is also a reflection of many individuals with disabilities. In an attempt to be consistent throughout our headings, we chose to use “people first” language. We didn’t intend to offend anyone, and have updated the post to reflect your concerns.

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