This week on The Autistic Feminist, we talk about person first language versus identity first language. Before we get into the nitty gritty, we would need a basic understanding of what person first and identity first language is.
Person first language is a type of linguistic prescription that emphasizes on the person, not the disability. It normally means well, but what many people don’t realize that it boils the disability down to just one tiny aspect of that person. Person-first language means well because it’s supposed to represent the shift away from outdated terms such as “handicapped” or the r-word. For instance, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, which was passed in 1975 to mandate the inclusion of disabled children in public schools, was changed to the Individuals with Disabilities Act in 1990, the same year the ADA was passed. The media tends to predominantly use person-first language, and it started when the ADA tried to help promote the change to person-first language.
Identity first language, on the other hand, says that the disability is part of who you are, and impacts who you are. It shows that you would not be you without the disability. A growing number of disabled people today prefer identity-first language, although there are still many individuals who prefer person-first language.
Which you should and shouldn’t use varies from person to person, and it really just boils down to personal preference, but from what I explained, your safest bet is to use identity first language, at least until the specific person you’re talking to says otherwise.
Using person-first language tends to view disabilities more as a disease or a serious condition that’s in need of treatment, rather than a disability that is ingrained in one’s personality. In a way, it implies a degree of shame or negativity in one’s disability.
The Disability Cultural Center at Syracuse University says “The basic reason behind members of these groups’ dislike for the application of people-first language to themselves is that they consider their disabilities to be inseparable parts of who they are.” They embrace the terms autistic, deaf, blind, or disabled as their personal identity.
The Autistic Self Advocacy Network explains that most autistic advocates prefer identity-first terminology. Autistic blogger and activist Lydia Brown said in a blog post reposted on the ASAN website as a language guide: “In the autism community, many self-advocates and their allies prefer terminology such as ‘Autistic,’ ‘Autistic person,’ or ‘Autistic individual’ because we understand autism as an inherent part of an individual’s identity — the same way one refers to ‘Muslims,’ ‘African-Americans,’ ‘Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender/Queer,’ ‘Chinese,’ ‘gifted,’ ‘athletic,’ or ‘Jewish.’”
Brown also explains the component of the terminology with this statement: “When we say ‘Autistic person,’ we recognize, affirm, and validate an individual’s identity as an Autistic person. We recognize the value and worth of that individual as an Autistic person — that being Autistic is not a condition absolutely irreconcilable with regarding people as inherently valuable and worth something. We affirm the individual’s potential to grow and mature, to overcome challenges and disability, and to live a meaningful life as an Autistic. Ultimately, we are accepting that the individual is different from non-Autistic people–and that that’s not a tragedy, and we are showing that we are not afraid or ashamed to recognize that difference.”
One two-panel comic created by Over Explaining Autistic explains the difference between the two very well. The first panel is an image of person first language, with a person walking a dog saying “Come on, Autism, time for a walk.” Autism being the dog’s name, implying that they’re a person with Autism. The second panel is an image of a person with the neurodiversity logo on their body, implying that they’re an autistic person. That comic was probably the best explanation of the difference between person first and identity first language I could find. It shows a basic understanding of how person-first language wouldn’t make sense to anyone who prefers identity-first language.