Person-First vs Identity-First Language

Although identity-first language is used widely throughout the actually autistic community, many people are still taught to refer to autistic people with person-first language.

Person-first language refers to a way of describing people with disabilities in which their personhood is put before their disability status. In this sense, person-first language is meant to describe what someone “has” rather than what someone “is”. For example, when referring to an autistic person, person-first language would address the person as a “person with autism”.

One of the first recommendations of person-first language was in the 1960s by Beatrice Wright. In her textbook, Wright explained that person-first language helps to avoid the marginalization and dehumanization of disabled persons. This belief was founded in a semantics study which had shown that language does not only provide a way to express ideas, but also to shape ideas. By using person-first language, Wright theorized that the user would be forced to recognize that the disabled person was human, despite their differences.

The first official policies supporting person-first language began popping up in the 1980s after pushes from disability advocacy groups. Although this type of language is often used to describe people with mental or developmental disabilities, it is also widely used to describe other members of the disability community, such a people with AIDS, diabetes, and asthma.

Despite its wide acceptance and promotion by non-disabled professionals and advocates, person-first language has faced controversy in certain disabled communities. While some disabled groups, such as those with diabetes or asthma, may feel they can be separated from their conditions, other groups feel that their conditions are deeply rooted in their being. These people feel that their disability is a core part of their identity.

Such groups tend to favor identity-first language over person-first language. When using identity-first language, the user places the identifier before the personhood. For example, most autistic people prefer to be called an “autistic person” rather than a “person with autism”. This preference is also common in the deaf community in which members prefer “deaf person” or “hard of hearing person”. In both of these communities, much work has been done to switch the narrative and create positive disabled identities.

As an autistic person myself, I tend to use identity-first language more frequently, but I also use person-first language at times. For me, the issue is not the language used as much as who dictates the proper usage. For example, I would not be offended if someone were to refer to me as a “person with autism”, but I would be offended if I referred to myself as autistic and a neurotypical person chastised me for using identity-first language.

Ultimately, it is up to the disabled person to decide how they want to be referred to, not non-disabled outsiders. I think this is probably why so many autistic people prefer identity-first language today. Person-first language was not something that we pushed for, but that non-autistic advocates pushed for. This is why groups like Autism Speaks use person-first language while groups like the Autistic Self Advocacy Network use identity-first language.

Additionally, autism presents a unique challenge to person-first language in that it cannot be separated from the autistic person. I am my autism and my autism is me. Person-first language expresses disability as a secondary attribute, but autism is really a strong characteristic of my identity. Everything I sense and think is affected by my autism. It defines my personal experiences and how I see the world. And so, in this sense, “person with autism” feels almost misleading. If I wasn’t autistic, my essence would simply cease to exist.

I suppose that’s why I named this blog “ActuallyAutisticJessica” and not “Actually, Jessica With Autism”.

Further explanation on identity vs person-first language by one of my favorite autistic advocates, Princess Aspien.


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