People First Language
People first vs. identity first language, PFL vs IFL. When I was first introduced to the concept of people first language, I was all “Yes! He’s a person first!” I reworked blog posts and titles to accommodate the language. I corrected friends and family when they misspoke and gave diatribes about how my child is actually a person! (I was so fun to be around, no?) As Maya Angelou said, “When you know better you do better.”
Then, I started reading first-person disability blogs. And while I didn’t reverse any of my blog posts, I now usually use identity first language. In recent years, I have changed my tune. In case you are not familiar with the “debate”, this is what I’m talking about.
What is people first language?
When speaking or writing, it refers to the person first. Such as:
- Person with disability
- Person with autism
What is identity first language?
It’s not exactly the “direct opposite” of people first language, in that it is not putting the person last. It is merely a way of saying “having a disability is acceptable.” You don’t need to try to hide the disability or squash it and put it second. It’s a part of who I am.
- disabled person
- autistic person
I would guess that probably once a month, a Facebook follower or blog reader will try to correct me and beg me to use people first language. Some are nice about it, some are not so nice. Recently, on a Facebook post, a reader pleaded with me: Love the blog post, but please, please use people first language.
My response to her was to suggest she also read such blogs and articles about identity first language. What is important is that we listen to people who are actually disabled or autistic. I’ve summarized a few great quotes below, with the links to their full thoughts.
I think they will have you rethinking people-first language if you’re a card-carrying member.
8 quotes that you make you stop demanding “people first” language.
But at the same time, there’s no way to see the person without the disability. A person is not a blank canvas that other things are added onto. From the moment we’re born, perhaps even from the moment we’re conceived, our experiences shape us and make us who we are. My disability, among many other things, is integrated into who I am. There is no way to separate me from my disability. It’s not as if “person” is a standard action figure, while “disability” comes in the accessory pack designed to make you spend more money. That’s the image that comes to mind when I hear person with a disability.
2. From: Why I dislike person-first language
Saying “person with autism” suggests that autism is something bad–so bad that is isn’t even consistent with being a person. Nobody objects to using adjectives to refer to characteristics of a person that are considered positive or neutral. We talk about left-handed people, not “people with left-handedness,” and about athletic or musical people, not about “people with athleticism” or “people with musicality.” We might call someone a “blue-eyed person” or a “person with blue eyes,” and nobody objects to either descriptor. It is only when someone has decided that the characteristic being referred to is negative that suddenly people want to separate it from the person.
These are not qualities or conditions that I have. They are part of who I am. Being Autistic does not subtract from my value, worth, and dignity as a person. Being Autistic does not diminish the other aspects of my identity. Being Autistic is not giving up on myself or limiting myself or surrendering to some debilitating monster or putting myself down. Being Autistic is like being anything else.
I was born with my disability. It was news to me that calling myself a “disabled person” was an insult. It had always been just a fact of life, a part of who I was. And now, after all these years of calling myself what I am, here was an educator, who doesn’t even have a disability, telling me I had it all wrong.
I fail to see why it’s okay to use the identity first descriptor “typically developing child” but not the identity first “autistic child.” Why do we constantly need to be reminded that the autistic kids are people? Is it so easy to forget? I would hope that no matter what label I use to refer to myself it be would obvious that I’m a person.
Anyone who needs to constantly remind themselves that disabled people are people should probably spend more time examining their own beliefs and less time telling other people how to speak about themselves or their children.
6. From: ASAN-Identity first language.
Autism, however, is not a disease. It is a neurological, developmental condition; it is considered a disorder, and it is disabling in many and varied ways. It is lifelong. It does not harm or kill of its own accord. It is an edifying and meaningful component of a person’s identity, and it defines the ways in which an individual experiences and understands the world around him or her. It is all-pervasive.
7.From: Dear Autism Parents
Notice, though, that when a car stops being drivable (disabled) it doesn’t also stop being a car. Similarly, a human who can’t do some expected human things doesn’t stop being a human. In some contexts, a car that can’t drive is a bad car, worthless, lesser, low- or non-functioning. In others, though–art, architecture, scrap metal (remember, humans aren’t cars and these examples don’t have direct equivalents for us, please don’t try and find the scrap-metal humans), a car with an exploded wheel is valued positively. Similarly, in a world without stairs, using a wheelchair can be an advantage. In a world where everyone uses sign language, only speaking with your mouth is a disadvantage. Meaning and value and worth get assigned to people based on how useful their range of capabilities and potentials are for various activities. A person who can’t participate in the activity they are expected to is disabled. This is what disability means.
8. And last but certainly not least, from: What is identity first language and should you use it?
The best thing to do in order to empower the disabled community to define themselves? Ask them how they’d like to be referred to — and advocate with all your might for wider disability-related protections and rights, to make life easier for everybody.
Have they changed your mind?
Up next: I’ll be tackling “special needs.” Because that vernacular is seeing a shift too. Stay tuned
- I’m tired of justifying my son’s existence.
- Ableist: Why some autism moms need to stop doing this.
- I don’t need you to tell me how to feel.