I have two neurological conditions. The first is Cerebral Palsy, a congenital form of permanent brain damage to the part of the brain that controls the muscles, which happened because I was born three months early. The muscles in my limbs are too tight and weak, so I can’t do things like running or tying shoelaces, and I have low balance and core strength, so I can’t do a sit-up or ride a bike. I walk with a limp and use a mobility aid called a forearm crutch when I’m outside the house. I also have Tourette Syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes me to make involuntary movements and sounds called tics. My tics have changed over the years, ranging from things as simple as blinking and whistling to things as complex as jumping and saying random words. I can try to suppress my tics for a while, but eventually it becomes physically uncomfortable and mentally draining, and I have to do them.
Article over... right? That’s why I’m disabled: I have neurological impairments. Except it’s not. Neither of those conditions are why I identify as a disabled person. Rather, I identify as a disabled person because of the way I am forced to navigate society—not by the nature of my body, but by the way society has historically been designed to ignore and harm people with bodies like mine. I am not disabled by my conditions, but by a world that does not take conditions like mine into account.
You’ll notice I don’t refer to myself as a person with a disability. I refer to myself as a disabled person very deliberately, and I ask that others refer to me the same way. I do this because I don’t agree with the reasoning behind person-first language like “person with a disability”. The idea of person-first language is that it is supposed to emphasize that people are not defined by their disability. In other words, you are signifying that you see the person before their disability, and therefore as separate from their disability. At first that might sound like a good thing, but there are some other perspectives worth exploring, though I can only speak from my experience.
I don’t use person-first language for myself because I don’t see myself as a person first. That doesn’t mean I see my personhood as secondary to my disabilities. Rather, I see my personhood as being deeply intertwined with my disabilities. My disabilities impact the way I perceive and interact with myself and interact with the world around me, which I would argue are the pillars of one’s identity. They aren’t secondary to who I am or even just one part of who I am, they shape the most fundamental aspects of who I am. They can’t be separated from my personhood, because I wouldn’t be the same person without them.
There are certainly people who prefer to refer to themselves as people with disabilities or some other language, and that’s perfectly okay. The language we use to identify ourselves is a very personal choice, and I can understand why some might choose person-first language. What’s important is honoring each individual’s decision. Ultimately, the conversation about identity and labels is complex and ongoing, and I hope this has left you with a fresh perspective.