As I’ve become more involved with disability advocacy, there are many things that I have come to understand. One of the first things I was taught as a professional was to use person-first language. I even wrote an article about it because I was so inspired. Whenever you get deeper into learning, you have to think about new perspectives. Now, instead of learning about person-first language, I am learning about a second type of language in the disability community: identity-first language.
To give you a recap of what I wrote last year, I explained that person-first language is where you put the person before the disability when you refer to them. You don’t label their disability as a defining factor of their identity. For example, you would say “person in a wheelchair” rather than “handicapped person.” A person being in a wheelchair is not who the person is. Many who prefer this language are often caretakers or parents of those with disabilities. They believe that because people in the disability community have historically faced discrimination and harmful discourse surrounding them, the idea is to dismantle the negative stigma society has given them. This type of language also demonstrates that people with disabilities are not the same across the board. They are individuals with their own interests, hobbies and ideas.
The identity-first language has the complete opposite set up. With this language, you refer to the disability before the person. Where someone would be “a person with autism” in person-first language, identity-first language says they would be an “autistic person.” People with disabilities, like the autism community, are starting to use this language more and more. Why is this? They believe that this type of language makes a point that their disability is not a bad word. Those who use identity-first language also want to erase the stigma around their disabilities, but in a different way than those who use person-first language. Some disabilities impact everything about a person’s life, so it is fundamental to their identity. They can’t take off their disability and put it away, it is something that is always there; however, that doesn’t mean it’s negative at all. For them, it is empowering.
Person-first language and identity-first language are topics that are subjected to lots of debate. There are many people on each side, both with good arguments. However, if you want to be a true ally, it is most important to listen to those with a disability. If you’re reading this article confused because now you don’t know which language to use, that’s okay. Whenever you’re in doubt, just ask a person which language they prefer you to use. There’s never any harm in asking.