While I was reading Emily Ladau’s new book Demystifying Disability, I was inspired to write this post. In the disability community, some people prefer person-first language versus identity-first language. Personally, I prefer identity-first language. Identity first language is language that denotes disability as an inherent part of an individual’s identity, the same way people refer to ethnic identity, religious affiliation, and/or sexual orientation. Whereas person first language is language that emphasizes the person, not the disability. By placing the person first, the disability is no longer the primary, defining characteristic of an individual but one of several aspects of the whole person.
I actually use both terms, but most of the time, I prefer identify first language. I’ve noticed that society seems to insist that we all use person-first language. People have the right to self-identify in any way they see fit. Furthermore, unlike other distinguishing words, disability is intrinsically negative because of the unbreakable “person first” requirement. Consider this no one would criticize me if I said, “I am a woman” or “I am a Christian” because we’ve all been taught to regard these terms as neutral.
Disabled, on the other hand, is deeply entrenched in our collective vocabulary with a built-in negative connotation as a result of the pity, fear, and misunderstanding that surrounds our community, an unspeakable adjective so assumed to be associated with misery that the people it describes have been stripped of their right to use it by people far removed from our lived experience.
I have no problem with being called disabled. People need not be afraid to use the word disabled around me. Cerebral Palsy is an integral part of my identity, not all of my identity but it’s a part of it. Because of Cerebral Palsy, I have met wonderful PCAs, and PTs among others. Without CP, I wouldn’t look forward to my weekly PT sessions where I can talk about Major League Baseball and different foods. I wouldn’t be able to become excited when picking out a new power wheelchair. I wouldn’t be the same person I am now, and imagining a different reality seems so sad when I consider all the people who would never have crossed my path.
When I think of the word disabled, I often conjure up images of vexing situations such as operations and braces that get too hot in the summer. The positive things that come to mind outnumber the bad ones. I don’t pass judgment on proponents of person first language or try to force it on anyone who doesn’t like it. If it makes you happy, you can continue to use the phrase people with disabilities.
That is the attraction of having a choice. That is what defines a person’s identity. But don’t tell me who I am or behave as if my personhood would be compromised if it comes before the term person in a sentence or two. I am so certain that I am a person, not a puppy or another animal that I will continue to accept my personhood as an assumed characteristic that is always there, even if it is not always expressed.
I want to say “Thanks” the next time you remind me that I’m a person first. That’s what I assumed. What led you to believe otherwise?” In case there were any uncertainties, remind him or her that she is a person as well.