How person-first language isolates disabled people
Note: This article uses a couple of uncensored, ableist slurs as examples of language carrying stigma in the first paragraph of the section “Who does person-first language really benefit?”. In context, they do not refer to anyone in particular.
As I progress through college writing, arts, and social science courses, I often run into this hard-and-fast rule that, when describing disabled people, person-first language is “correct”. Person-first language includes terms like “people with disabilities”, as opposed to the identity-first “disabled people”. Though there were good-faith arguments for using person-first language over identity-first language when it first emerged, in the decades since it has often been questioned. As a disabled person, I strongly prefer identity-first language for two main reasons: person-first language limits our identity creation and social ties, and it benefits able-bodied people over disabled people.
Effects on disabled identity, communities, and pride
One of the primary arguments against person-first language is that it separates people from their disability, which often is central to their life experience. “Disabilities” like autism, deafness, blindness, and paralysis alter a person’s perception and sensory experiences. After being disabled for some time, it becomes difficult to imagine life without the disability. Using person-first language implies that any disabled individual would be the same without their disability. Our life histories shape who we are, so this is not and cannot be true.
Using person-first language for disability alone, while still using identity-first language for most other traits, separates disability from other social identities. It dissuades disabled people from identifying as disabled, even as many of us feel this is central to who we are. Disability changes a person’s life, and many of us find comfort in finding others with similarly-altered experiences. When identity-first language is the default, treating disability differently implies that disabled people should not identify as such. We are discouraged from feeling kinship with each other, which isolates us and prevents us from linking our experiences as disabled people with other parts of who we are.