Since I’m a disability training consultant, I spend some time reading etiquette tips for interacting with people who have disabilities. One of the strongest, most consistent mandates I see is regarding “person-first language”. All the books and tip sheets urge us to refer to people with disabilities as “people first” by using phrases like “person with autism” or “person with a disability” rather than “autistic people” or “disabled people.” This mandate has moved into the academic realm as well, with journal editors and grantmakers requiring person-first references to disability in academic writing. I’ve even known people who were corrected when they referred to *themselves* as disabled people.
Because disability is such a diverse, nuanced experience, I’ve always found the rigidity around disability language to be a little frustrating. The person-first mandate also contradicts the way I’ve always talked about my own disability. Without pause, I’ve always referred to myself and others like me as “blind people” and this phrase never struck me as offensive. So, I was interested to read this recent American Psychologist articleabout how disability language has changed over time.
Person-first disability language became popularized in the 1980’s and 1990’s, around the time of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)’s passage. It came in reaction to earlier, medicalized disability language that defined people exclusively by their impairments. Terms like “the Down’s kid” or “those schizophrenics on the fourth floor” dehumanized people by labeling them as nothing more than their impairments and discounting differences between people with the same impairment. In this way, person-first language emphasizes each person’s humanity and individuality.
However, in recent years some members of the disability community have challenged the exclusive use of person-first language. Their argument has two main thrusts. First, we don’t use person-first language to describe any other group of people in English. We don’t say, “the person with femaleness” or “people who are Asian”. We certainly don’t say “people who are beautiful”; instead we are happy to call them “beautiful people.” In this way, person-first disability language sounds unusual and, paradoxically, brings more mental attention to the disability. The phrasing itself can also be awkward, especially in writing.
The second issue is that many people think of their disabilities as positive parts of who they are. Thus, they would not want to be separated from their disability identity in language. Instead, they prefer “identity-first” constructions that highlight their membership in a particular disability group, in the same way we use “identity-first” phrasing to describe someone’s race, gender, or beauty. This thinking is especially strong among some disability groups, such as blind people, Deaf people, and autistic people.
So then, what’s the bottom line? What language should we be using?
The short answer is “both.” Using both types of language respects both viewpoints on the issue. Using both constructions also breaks down the rigidity that often accompanies this discussion. I will use both types of language on this blog and in my training materials to offer respect to both preferences.
In addition, it is worth noting that people with disabilities, also known as disabled people, must be the ones leading these language discussions. We should respect their preferences on how they speak about themselves and how they wish to be described verbally and in writing. All too often, people without disabilities, aka nondisabled people, have been the ones promoting a rigid language preference.
Last year, I gave an invited talk at an occupational therapy conference about some research I had done. A colleague urged me to use person-first language throughout my talk. Out of curiosity, I asked some friends on Facebook what type of language they preferred to use, and mentioned that I had been mandated to use person-first language with the occupational therapists. A friend of mine, who happens to be a person without disabilities who teaches kids who are blind or visually impaired (also known as, a nondisabled teacher of blind students), had an interesting idea. She advised me to call my audience “therapists of occupation.” She further advised that since I was not a member of that group, I obviously had the authority to decide what these individuals should be called. Her facetious response illustrates the absurdity of telling others what to call themselves.
If you are in doubt about what to call a particular individual, person-first language is a safe initial bet. But, even better is to ask the individual. If you are writing or speaking about a particular disability group, read their literature, and find out what language they use. Most of all, recognize that language is an ever-changing reflection of the way groups view themselves, and are viewed by others.
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