I applied to the DukeEngage Seattle program with lofty goals in mind. As a global health student, I signed up to work for Disability Rights Washington, hoping to help change the well-being of those who need it the most. After all, I thought these were people whose unfortunate health circumstances required extra consideration from the rest of us. I came to Seattle thinking that I was going to help change these people’s lives. But instead, they have changed mine.

On my first day of work at Disability Rights, the director of legal advocacy David Carlson taught me the “peoples first” linguistic approach when referring to disabilities. This approach dictates that individuals with disabilities should be referred to first and foremost as people, with their disability only added as a descriptive. Instead of being called “disabled people” or “handicapped people,” they should instead to referred to “people with disabilities.”  We should not talk about “the autistic child,” but rather, “the child with autism.” This philosophy emphasizes the fact that people with disabilities are human beings like you and I; their disability is simply a trait where they differ from others, just like gender or eye color.

With this lesson, I realized how wrong my initial assumptions were. By assuming that these people needed me to change their lives, I was seeing their disability first, and their humanity second. We have been taught to be sensitive to those with disabilities, but in a way that pities them, rather than empowers them. These people are not my charity cases or somehow more “unfortunate” than me; they are normal individuals who simply required assistance adjusting to a society that has arbitrarily deemed them “disabled.” I have only been in Seattle for three weeks, but those three weeks have already humbled me and challenged the way I view those around me.

Diana Zheng
Duke Student '14

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