People-First Language or Identity-First Language

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While we all agree the H-word and the R-word are absolute no-nos when referring to people with disabilities, it seems that our community is less in agreement on other parts of what is deemed “appropriate” speech.

There are largely two camps: people-first language and identity-first language. For those of you who may not be familiar with the two, this is how they break down:

People-First Language

  • Developed to change the dehumanization of people with disabilities.
  • Puts the person before the disability (e.g., people with disabilities; not disabled people).
  • Puts the focus on the person instead of the disability. That helps change people’s bias (explicit or implicit) toward people with disabilities.
  • Since some people still see disability as a weakness or limitation, putting the disability before the person makes people put limitations on other people.

Identity-First Language

  • Most commonly found within the blind, deaf and autism communities, a disability is seen as being entwined with a person’s identity.
  • Holds that the identity is put before the person (e.g., autistic person; not a person with autism).
  • People experience their world through their disability, making it a major contributor to who they are. It shouldn’t be separated from them as a person.
  • People-first language is unnatural to how we speak, and it takes the power out of the disability.

Without a doubt, both camps aim to empower people, but the debate over which one does it better still rages on. In the past two weeks, I’ve seen both come up in separate meetings with varying results. I think that is the more practical part of this discussion. How do we handle this difference in our organizations and our collective disability rights movement?

Here are my two recent experiences of how these conversations went. You may recognize situations like this or may see one soon in your own organization or circles.

  1. While creating a training, a group of people decided to incorporate a brief language section initially proposed as “people-first language.” Some people said they felt uncomfortable with this section because they didn’t think that people-first language is preferable to them. We had a lively debate about the differences and why each person preferred the language they did. This helped us further develop the training more.
  2. In a meeting, someone is accused of saying something “the wrong way.” Not only is this person singled out and scolded about it, but the debate also derailed and changed the tone of the meeting, lessening its productivity.

I think most of us can agree that the first of the two situations is preferred. While this discussion is very important, if we allow it to take up time, less time is spent working on other important issues like asset limits or community accessibility, which is what was being discussed in the second example.

We need to remember at the end of the day, the disability community, like any other community, has varying opinions and views. We need to respect people’s individual autonomy to identify as they see fit.

As a movement, the best thing we can do is educate people about the two options of preferred language and prepare them to be corrected.

Derek Wetherell is the Systems Organizer at Paraquad. He can be reached at dwetherell@paraquad.org.

One comment on “People-First Language or Identity-First Language?”

  1. 1
    Ura on September 20, 2016

    Most commonly found within the blind, deaf and autism communities, a disability is seen as being entwined with a person’s identity.
    Actually, no it’s not. The autism community is 50/50 on what language to use because of all the parents and so-called allies populating it. It is in the Autistic community that 63% prefer not to have linguistic gymnastics used about us.

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