Identity First Versus Person First Language: The Other Side
June 06, 2019 | Guest Blogger: Remy Biggs, Library & Information Science Student, School of Information Studies, Syracuse University & Project Assistant, Project ENABLE
The topic of person first language appears early in the Project ENABLE training (Module 1). However, there are two ways of referring to a person with a disability: identity first and person first.
Identity first puts the identity revolving around the disability at the front of the subject (ex: "autistic", "dyslexic"), while person-first puts "person" first and uses the noun form of the disability instead (ex: "people with autism", "people with dyslexia"). Project ENABLE has made the conscious decision to use person-first language in its content. As an assistant on the project, who is multiply disabled and uses identity-first language, I'd like to present --- the other side.
While person-first language is often considered a good baseline (and perhaps might be the better linguistic route for people without any kind of disability), many activists for the rights of disabled people find person-first language and structures problematic and euphemistic. Like me, some disabled people prefer identity first language (ex: disabled people rather than people with disabilities, dyslexic person rather than people with dyslexia).
While some people with disabilities prefer to use person first language when it comes to the context of disability, there are arguably just as many disabled people who find themselves to be uncomfortable with it. It is always important to take note of how a person refers to themselves and their experience and refer to them the way they prefer to be referred to.
For example, I use identity-first language when I speak about my experience, but I do my best to use person-first language if the person I am with is a person with disabilities and prefers person-first language. However, within any other context, I exclusively use identity-first language. I refer to myself as an autistic person and encourage those who work with me, disabled and non-disabled people alike, to refer to me the same way.
Many people I know who are not disabled tend to use person-first language, citing the fact that it allows for the subject to be more humanized. It is true also that I know many autistic folks like myself who balk at hearing non-autistic people refer to us as "autistics"; it is definitely a case by case situation.
However, that notion (i.e. that person first language is more humanizing than identity-first language) might not be as cut and dry as we might hope; in one recent study, person-first language was demonstrated as reducing negative reactions in only 2% of cases. In another editorial piece, Morton Ann Gernsbacher asserted that its usage might even accentuate stigma in academic contexts rather than combat it.
I know that I feel very uncomfortable when someone refers to me as a "person with autism," especially when I hear it come from someone who is not disabled. I feel that my autism is inextricable from my personhood. Since autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder, there has never been a version of me that has been without it. In my opinion, to draw the distinction and separate the two implies that having a diagnosis of autism is something I should be ashamed of, and something I should strive to put behind me or minimize rather than to embrace about myself. In my case, I often feel that when people refer to me as a "person with autism" it serves to minimize something about me that makes me me in order to make people who are not autistic feel more comfortable.
Ultimately, the best way to find out which is best for a situation is to open a dialogue with the people involved. Nothing can truly be reconciled without open communication. One of the most important things you can do as a disability advocate is listen to us, and this is a good way to start having open conversations with people about what language they prefer to be used to reference themselves and their disabilities -- and why that might be.