Identity-First Language and Why You Should Default to It

Content/trigger warning: cursing, discussion of ableism

I feel like other people (*cough* Autistic Hoya *cough*) have done this better than I can, but I’m going to try my hand at this: why “D/disabled” is preferable to “person with a disability”, i.e. why person-first language (PFL) is a load of crap and identity-first language (IFL) is more respectful. Note: this is in general. There are individuals who use person-first language, and—as far as I’ve heard—people with Down syndrome prefer, well, the phrasing I just used. I have also seen PFL being used for people with cancer.

So, why (in general) should you say “disabled” instead of “person with a disability”? Several reasons. One, the social model aspect of disability. I maintain that the social model of disability, which posits that disability exists because society is not set up to accommodate Disabled people, is flawed—even with all access barriers removed, my brain would still be trying to kill me, and it would still fuck seriously with my ability to do things—but the ablenormativity inherent in society does indeed disable Disabled people. The use of “person with a disability” instead of “disabled” ignores this crucial fact.

Two, “person with a disability” implies that disability can be separated from a person. Because of the social aspect of disability, this is impossible. This is especially true for Autistic people because our Autisticness informs so many aspects of our lives that it is impossible for autism to be separated from the person. Even allistic Disabled people, though, cannot be separated from their experiences of being Disabled by society and their bodies/brains. And you know what? “Disabled” is not a dirty word, and that is because disability does not reflect negatively on the person. Seeing disability as reflecting negatively on the Disabled person is ableism, full stop.

Three, “person with a disability” is a misguided attempt at making people see Disabled people’s humanity that is predicated on an ableist idea. If someone has to say “person with a disability” in order to remind themselves that a Disabled person is indeed a person, that’s rooted in ableism too deep to be fixed by an incorrect euphemism that is in and of itself ableist. PFL, instead of emphasizing a person’s humanity, plays into the aforementioned (point two) ableist concept of disability; if you have to separate disability from the person because “oooooh disability is BAD”, that’s ableism. (Remember how I said earlier, though, that PFL is preferred for people with cancer? Yeah, this is why. People saying that cancer is horrible are completely right.)

Look, words mean things and semantics have an effect on how people think. IFL recognizes the experiences and identity and humanity of Disabled people. PFL dehumanizes Disabled people. Which one would you rather use as a default? (If you say PFL, get the fuck off my blog.)

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