Let’s talk about: Person-first vs Identity-first language

First let’s start off with some definitions:

  • person-first language means focusing on someone as a human being before distinguishing them by their disability (or other defining characteristic). For example, “she is a person who is blind.”
  • identity-first language means acknowledging and accepting that a person’s unique characteristics help define their sense of self. For example, “she is blind” or “she is a blind person.”

So which is better?

It depends.

Let’s start off by looking at person-first language. We know that language matters, and helps shape our perceptions of the world, and that is where the idea of person-first language emerged. Disability advocates (some with disabilities and many non-disabled) really fought for person-first language in the last half of the 20th century. The idea is that by using person-first language we remind the non-disabled world that people with disabilities deserve to be treated like everyone else. The thing about person-first language, however, is that it tends to be promoted by people without disabilities (parents, teacher, therapists, etc.), but some people with disabilities don’t like this approach.

The first group that kind of rejected this idea was Deaf people. For those unfamiliar with the Deaf community, they are a cultural group who are very proud of their deafness (that was an extremely abbreviated explanation, but we can go more in depth in future posts). Deaf people embraced identity-first language because of their pride and acknowledgement of the characteristics that make them who they are. Because they are a cultural group, using person-first language would be like me saying “I’m a person with an Italian heritage” rather than “I’m an Italian-American”; it’s just unnecessarily wordy and makes it seem like I’m trying to avoid or I’m ashamed of who I am.

More recently, the autistic community has been on a mission to adopt identity-first language. They are saying that they are proud of who they are and they don’t have a problem with acknowledging their unique characteristics. Also using identity-first language helps give other people an idea that they may need accommodations and hopefully be more understanding about the unique needs of the individual.

Ok, so all disabled people want us to use identity-first language, right?

No.

For one thing, not every disability has an adjectival form. Let’s look at Tourette’s. How would you say that using identity-first language? “A Tourette’s person” doesn’t sound grammatically correct. “A ticcing person” is just describing one symptom and doesn’t give a good idea of what a person may be experiencing or needs. I just can’t think of a good way to use identity-first language with that particular disability.

Another issue is that connotation can change when a word goes from a noun to an adjective. I have anxiety, but I don’t want to be referred to as an “anxious person” because that conjures up ideas of someone who’s constantly nervous and unsure of themselves. I’m not like that at all, I actually am very confident in a lot of situations, so I would prefer person-first language when referring to my mental health condition.

What’s the solution then?

Talk to people with disabilities. Ask them what kind of language they prefer. This is called person-centered language and it’s the best of both worlds. On this blog, I will go between person-first and identity-first language. When talking about autism and deafness, I’ll lean toward identity-first language. I would love to hear from other people. What do you prefer? Do you care either way? Are there other communities where the majority of people feel one way or another? Please share your stories in the comments below!

Here are some resources if you’d like more information on this topic:

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