In One Sentence: Whether to use person-first (“person with a disability”) or identity-first (“disabled person”) language is a complex question, but many people find person-first language acceptable if you’re unsure.
Like many other minority identities, disability comes with its own vocabulary; some individuals prefer certain terms of self-identification over others. Often, this language choice corresponds to the person’s relationship with disability and the role it plays in their lives.
We find that the two primary forms of disability language are person-first language and identity-first language. Using identity-first language, one might refer to a “disabled person,” indicating that disability is a central part of that person’s identity. Person-first language, by contrast, prioritizes that individual’s personhood, implying that disability is but one part of who they are.
To those outside of the disability community, the debate between person- and identity-first language may seem like a semantic affair. But to those within it — and for many of us here at SDS — this question of language is, at its core, a question of identity. Is disability something that a person “has,” for instance, or is it a integral part of who they are?
The case for person- and identity-first language
We find that those who use person-first language argue that to use identity-first language reduces someone to their disability, minimizing other equally important aspects of that person’s being. Person-first language is said to be a conscious acknowledgement of personhood. We’re also aware of the argument that the choice of words makes a statement about power — that, for instance, saying someone “has a disability” highlights that they have control over that disability and not that the disability “has them,” as saying “disabled” might imply.
Advocates for identity-first language, some of whom are SDS members, emphasize ties to the social model of disability. For these people, society is the disabling factor; their choice of language is a way to assert that they as individuals aren’t the “problem” when it comes to accessibility and inclusion but rather that society is. In this framework, using “disabled” as a self-identifier is a means of empowerment, and of claiming disability as an inextricable and cultural component of who one is.
Notes on identity-first language
Examples of disability communities that consistently prefer identity-first language are the autistic (or Autistic) and Deaf communities. For many individuals, autism and deafness are integral parts of identity, and so to call oneself Autistic or Deaf is a point of pride. (The Deaf community uses a capital “D” to delineate that sense of pride — those who identify as “big-D Deaf” see themselves as a cultural and linguistic minority, while deaf with a lowercase “d” is indicative only of a clinical diagnosis of deafness. That naming convention is one the Autistic community has adopted as well.)
Notable exceptions to the identity-first convention, as noted by Emily Ladau at Think Inclusive, are when a term is used in reference to a medical diagnosis or a piece of mobility or medical equipment. In other words, it’s inappropriate to call someone a “Down syndrome person,” “schizophrenia person,” “wheelchair person” or “respirator person.”
The language debate is a complex one, in many cases fraught with emotion and strongly-held beliefs. So what’s the best way to approach it?
We often read that person-first language is generally considered more acceptable in the United States and outside of academe, especially for use when referring to a large group of people or someone you don’t know well. Unless you’ve been advised otherwise, many people think person-first language is a safe bet to use in a new situation. You can also sidestep the problem and talk about “people who experience a disabling impairment” or “someone considered disabled.”
Both identity- and person-first language, ultimately, share a goal of acknowledging disability in a respectful and appropriate way — the two camps just differ on what is considered the best way of doing so. In any case, it’s important to remember that disability language isn’t a matter of political correctness; instead, it’s a reflection of someone’s identity and a means of self-expression. It’s also an individual choice, so if you’re unsure of what terms a person prefers, it can be a good idea to ask. On the other hand, this can be seen as wishy-washy. You can choose what suits your understanding of disability and be prepared to defend your choice.
Other disability-related terms
Conversations about disability language don’t end with person- and identity-first language; the National Center on Disability and Journalism produces a Disability Language Style Guide that provides an overview of dozens more disability-related terms.
Callahan, M. (2018, July 12). Unpacking the debate over person-first vs. identity-first language in the autism community. Retrieved from https://news.northeastern.edu/2018/07/12/unpacking-the-debate-over-person-first-vs-identity-first-language-in-the-autism-community/
Defenses of person-first language
What is People First Language? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.thearc.org/who-we-are/media-center/people-first-language
Tobin, M. (2011, May 23). Put me first: The importance of person-first language. Retrieved from http://www.ttacnews.vcu.edu/2011/05/put-me-first-the-importance-of-person-first-language/
Defenses of identity-first language
Ladau, E. (2015, July 20). Person-First Language Doesn’t Always Put the Person First. Retrieved from https://www.thinkinclusive.us/why-person-first-language-doesnt-always-put-the-person-first/
Liebowitz, C. (2015, March 12). I am Disabled: On Identity-First Versus People-First Language. Retrieved from https://thebodyisnotanapology.com/magazine/i-am-disabled-on-identity-first-versus-people-first-language/
Thorpe, JR. (2018, November 13). This Is How To Talk About Disability, According To Disabled People. Retrieved from https://www.bustle.com/p/what-is-identity-first-language-should-you-use-it-74901