Identity First Vs. Person First

For many years, there has been a debate on what to call people with disabilities. For many years, society referred to people with disabilities as the R-word. The R-word is defined as less advanced in mental, physical, or social development than what is usual for one’s age, with synonyms such as foolish or stupid. These words leave with the condemnation that if someone has a disability, they are less than and not worthy of being treated as a human with basic rights.

Luckily by today’s standards, the R-word is considered socially unacceptable. While that is a big win for the disability community, there are still many words that need to be removed from our everyday language that show people with disabilities into a negative light, such as lame and crippled.

But what about the preferred use of language debate within the disability community? Within the disability community, there is a debate on preferred language on how to identify a disabled person. Should one use identity first or person-first language?

Identity first language is identifying the disability first and acknowledging someone is disabled. Their disability shapes their whole being and who they are. Examples of this language includes autistic or disabled person. The argument for those who prefer identity first language is that they will never be able to separate themselves from their disability and that their disability will always shape their life experiences. Similar to how one’s race and sex shapes one’s life experiences.

Please note: Identity first language is often used by the disabled person.

Person first language is the idea that you identify the person before the disability. Reiterating the idea that a person with a disability is a person who has a disability. Their disability is a part of who they are but their disability does not identify them. An example of this language includes, a person with a disability or a person who has autism. This is similar to how one identifies one’s physical features such as hair or eye color.

Please Note: Person first language is often used by a non-disabled person when they are referring to someone with a disability.

As someone who is disabled, I use identity and person first language interchangeably, depending on how I am speaking to or what I am speaking about. When I am focusing on disability related topics and advocacy, I am a disabled person. In my opinion, this helps people understand that my disability is not going anywhere and that we as society need to make changes to accommodate disabilities and not try to make the disability fit into society.

In other conversations or contexts where I do not want my disability to be the main focus, I may use person first language.

Do you have a disability? If so, do you prefer identity first vs. person first language? Are you an abled-bodied person and are not sure which language to use? Just ask! These are preferences ad there is no right or wrong answer because one disabled person can not speak for all people with disabilities.

About Isabella Bullock: Isabella, or Izzy for short, is an employment specialist for the Center of Independent Living. She is an iced coffee enthusiast who enjoys getting lost in a good book. Click here to learn more about Isabella.