[Image description: A woman looking up contemplatively at a scale. One side of the scale reads “person-first”, and the other reads “identity-first”. Image source]
If you’re unfamiliar with these terms, person-first language refers to language that emphasizes the person before the disability. For example, a “person with a disability”. Identity-first language does the opposite and emphasizes the disability before the person. For example, a “disabled person”.
So which do I prefer?
I prefer identity-first language, but it took me a long time to get to this point. For a long time, I did not want to be associated with my disability because I hated it. It made me different from everyone else. It was the reason I felt so limited, and I felt that acknowledging it would only give it more power to isolate me from the rest of society. It wasn’t until I found blogs of other disabled people that I began to consider the other side of the argument.
The main reason why person-first language is so popular is because it acknowledges the person first, so that their entire identity isn’t overshadowed or defined by their disability. There are a couple problems with this idea. The first being that separating the disability from the person makes it seem like disability is a bad thing. Personhood needs to be acknowledged first because the person is not their disability, and doing it the other way around seems to imply that they are. Well, why is it that putting the disability first implies that the person is their disability and less of a person? That certainly doesn’t apply to other labels in society. It is perfectly acceptable to refer to people as “black”, “white”, or “gay”. For example, I can say “white girl”, and that is not offensive. I can even say “she’s white” with no issue. It is only when I say “a girl with white skin” that I might get weird looks. Referring to the girl’s skin colour before her personhood makes her no less of person. I don’t know why this isn’t the case with disability labels. It is an identity used in society, just as race, sexual orientation, and nationality are.
The second problem I have with person-first language is the phrasing itself—a person with a disability. The word “with” makes me feel as if my disability is some sort of tagalong, a thing I always carry with me—kind of like this:
[Image description: A stick figure on the left is holding a bag with colours inside (representing autism). The stick figure on the right has the colours on his face, representing that autism is a part of him. Image source]
I have cerebral palsy. It is an innate part of who I am, and as it is a lifelong condition, I’ll always have it. I will never be able to be without cerebral palsy.
The most important thing when it comes to these terms is to respect the disabled person’s choice in how they choose to identify and never try to correct it. Beyond that, I think it’s valuable to acknowledge identity-first language and consider how that particular disability community chooses to identify instead of using person-first language by default.