Guest post: Person first language versus identity first language; Does it have to be one or the other? by Angel Dixon
Person first language: puts the person before the disability or disorder; A person living with paralysis.
Identity first language: puts the disability or disorder first in the description; An autistic person.
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As a person who lives with a physical disability, there have been times when it was difficult to discern where my disability finished and where I began. At those times I wanted the option to identify with a small community of people who I knew could understand and relate. I wanted to identify as a disabled person. Further on in my disability journey I need the option to create some distance between me and my diagnosis and identify as someone living with a spinal cord injury.
As an advocate for inclusion and humanism, I see people first. From the view of an advocate, disability is like a shadow. The person must exist before their shadow can be thrown. With this in mind it is empowering to remember that you are a person before you are a diagnosis.
As the sibling of someone living with an intellectual and physical disability, I am never sure what I want. The advocate in me wants to show the world how brilliant my brother’s abilities are. The little sister in me wants to protect him from judgment and misunderstanding and that side of me wants to scream “HE IS DISABLED”.
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There are some heated debates going on around this topic at the moment. One of which is surrounding a name change to an international non-profit organization. These debates are between parents and organizations, organizations and the general public, disabled people and people living with disabilities. These are good, healthy discussions to be having publicly. These conversations will help educate society about the deeper internal barriers encountered when navigating disability. These issues are delicate and personal and certainly need to be addressed but is the changing of an organizations name really what we want to be fighting for?
Us humans don’t grow equally or even chronologically. We grow and learn through experience and those experiences can happen at any age or stage. We can be mature in one area and blissfully childish in another. Everyone is at different stages all of the time. The one thing that we have in life that does not change is our language. The emotion behind our words changes, the stigma that is tied to certain words can change but the words themselves stay the same.
If we’re all in a constant state of change should we really change our one anchor for common knowledge and understanding? Should we really be arguing over semantics? This is where inclusion comes into play; the whole idea of inclusion is so that people can use whichever terms they identify with and feel safe in the knowledge that society will understand and accept it.
I personally feel that creating a division amongst ourselves is counter productive. The disabled community is already a minority. If we work together we can be powerful. Let’s use our energy to educate people about inclusion so that the stigma that comes with certain words is not burned into our skin and left to fester like a brand.
As you can probably tell from my introduction, I still can’t make up my mind. Even with my extensive experience in the area of disability, when given only the two options of person vs identity first language, I just can’t bring myself to choose one or the other.
Here’s what I know; We are complex beings who grow and adapt to change and circumstance and if we limit ourselves to just one of these two languages we are limiting our potential.