Today I’m talking language, but more specifically the way we use language to talk about disability. Most of us communicate extremely frequently, yet we don’t often question the way we use words in an in depth way. It’s because of this, that many people don’t consider that the way they talk about disability, can have an impact on how what they say is received and interpreted. One of the factors that plays in to this is identity first and person first language, which is what I’m going to tackle today.
Identity first language, is where identity is stated first. The best way to understand this is through an example. The below sentence uses identity first language:
I am a disabled person.
Here, I am literally putting my identity as “disabled”, before stating that I am a “person”.
Person first language on the other hand, puts the part of the statement that refers to the person as a person, before their identity. Returning to my example, using person first language, my sentence now becomes:
I am a person with a disability.
Here I’ve presented my status as a “person”, before my identity that I’m “disabled”.
Both of these sentences tell us the same thing. They tell us exactly the same two pieces of information.
The difference, is that they present those two pieces of information in a different order.
Why Does this Matter?
This may seem like a trivial thing, but it can be extremely important to disabled communities. While some people don’t mind, others have very firm preferences.
My personal preference is identity first language. Allow me to explain why.
The idea behind identity first language is that being disabled is an identity, it can be a very fundamental part of a person’s life. Therefore, if someone is identifying as disabled or talking about disability, then the disabled bit comes first. This is the same with any other thing about a person that they may talk about such as saying I am a tall person or I am a young person or so on. It is not usually the case that I would say I am a person who is young. So, why should I say I am a person with a disability?
However those in favour of person first language, are addressing the problem that many non disabled people perceive disabled people as being defined by their disabilities. So, to challenge that assumption, they decided to use language, which is undoubtedly a very powerful tool, to emphasise the personhood of a disabled person. So we have our phrase person with a disability.
The problem that people who believe in identity first language have with this, is the need to separate personhood from disability. Saying person with a disability, emphasises the word person, which feeds back in to the ablest idea of questioning the value of disability. By distinctly separating the word “person” from the word “disability”, we’re suggesting that they are separate entities.
When we talk about an African person or a black haired person or a short person, we are never concerned that any of these descriptors are the sole defining characteristic of the individual in question, nor are we questioning the individual’s status as a person.
Emphasising the person bit, feels like we’re validating peoples’ doubts about disability and personhood co-existing, because we’re expressing the need to affirm that the disabled person is in fact a person.
The other main problem with person first language, is it’s what care givers, educators, government organisations and basically people who seem to think they have the right and the power to speak for disabled people, prefer. While not all disabled people prefer person first language, the more I research the topic, the more I’m noticing a trend of disabled people being in support of identity first language and non disabled people being in support of person first language. So, by insisting on person first language, as many organisations do, here we are erasing disabled peoples’ ability to choose how they’re talked about.
What Language Should I Use When Writing
In general, I do feel very strongly that people should use identity first language, because it normalises identifying as disabled and doesn’t separate disability from personhood. You’ll notice that that’s what I do.
That said, if you’re writing about or on behalf of a disabled person who prefers person first language, then use that. I may have opinions about language use, but I’m certainly not going to tell anyone to erase someone else’s language preferences, because that’s not fair.
You can often find out fairly easily what a person uses, particularly if they have an online presence. For example, my Twitter bio uses identity first language. It reads:
“Writer, book lover and blind woman. Passionate about disability representation.”
By calling myself a “blind woman”, I am using identity first language, as I am telling the world that I am blind, before stating my personhood as a woman.
What language someone uses to talk about themselves, is usually a good indicator of what they’re comfortable with. It is likely, that if someone is using a type of language to talk about themselves, that they are not uncomfortable with it.
However, one thing to note is that editors do sometimes edit the work of disabled people and amend language in ways that the disabled writer is not comfortable with. There have been many reports online of editors refusing to amend these edits when disabled people have complained about this. So where possible, check peoples’ social media or personally run platforms such as blogs, YouTube channels, podcasts or anything you know the individual in question has editorial control over. And if you’re still unsure, just ask them.
If you’re writing a story featuring a disabled character and you’re not sure which to use, consider the following questions:
How does the disabled character feel about their identity? Are they happy about and comfortable with their disability or not? Always remember that perceptions of disability can be complicated.
Where do you think your character would fit in this debate? Read about disability language, then try work out where your disabled character fits. It’ll be a bit of extra character building and will help to make sure that the disability language you use makes sense.
What do your sensitivity readers think? If you’re non disabled and writing a disabled character, it’s really important that you use sensitivity readers and this is exactly the sort of thing you should be talking to them about.
To finish, I just want to contextualise this issue by saying that it is by no means one of the biggest issues in disability language use, but it is certainly extremely relevant and important. It’s possibly the sort of thing to thinkab when editing your work, as opposed to something major you should be focusing highly on in your first draft. That said, you wouldn’t want your work published riddled with typing errors or other inaccuracies. So why would you want your work published using language that disabled people aren’t comfortable with or that contributes to the long history of misconceptions and ableism, that exists in disability representation?