Identity- or Person-First Language?

WRITTEN BY: Andrew Zerman, Staff Writer

Photo courtesy of Flickr

A circulating issue in the disability community is person-first vs. identity-first language. Person-first language says to put the person first, such as “person with dyslexia,” “person with autism” or “person with schizophrenia.” Identity-first language puts the identity before the person, such as dyslexic person, schizophrenic person or autistic person. 

The public consensus is to use person-first language unless someone with a disability tells you that they prefer identity-first language. I have an invisible disability myself, and I have used identity-first language my whole life. That is my preference, but I use person-first language when I am asked. 

You do not use “person with ________” when describing any other identity such as race, gender or orientation. Why is it that we suddenly do that with regard to disabilities? Why do we try to separate the person from the disability? Is it because our society characterizes disabilities as a bad thing that one must be separated from? That is my interpretation of person-first language and I feel that it characterizes the disability in negative terms. How can we expect society to perceive disabilities in a more positive manner if we are using language that tries to separate it from the person?

I do understand the counterargument, that a disability is not the entirety of who the person is and that is why person-first language is preferred. I agree that a disability is not the entirety of someone, but identity-first language is not saying that a disability is the essence of who you are. 

There are many other things that make up your identity, such as race, gender or orientation. If someone were to say that they were gay, that does not meet that it is the entirety of who they are. They are simply stating one part of their identity, and it is the same when people say that they are bipolar, autistic, dyslexic, blind etc.  

Having a disability is also a part of my identity — it will always be. If I were to not have a disability, parts of my life would be different. I don’t view a disability as an accessory. I view it as a different way of being that makes up a whole web that consists of the diversity of the human experience. Person-first language is said to “put the person before the disability.” But the truth is that you don’t have the same person without the disability.

Please do not interpret this as me devaluing those who prefer person-first language. The experience of disability is different for everyone and I know that people have different rationales than I do. I know that I am also privileged as a white male and as someone who has received a good education. For others with disabilities, this affects their lives to a much higher degree, and they may prefer person-first terminology which is perfectly okay. I am simply explaining my thoughts as one person. 

If you know anyone with a disability, make sure to listen to their language preference if they tell you. After all, this is about what they want to be called and not what you want to call them. It is acceptable to use identity-first language if the individual prefers it.