It appears the topic of disability language has returned to the forefront of discussion on autistic twitter, as it does every few weeks. As such, I have decided to add my take on the topic. For those unfamiliar with disability discourse, the language used to refer to disabled people is the source of an often very heated debate between proponents of identity first language (IFL) and person first language (PFL).
Identity first language is phrases like “I am autistic”, “she is a disabled person”, i.e. using the disability as an adjective describing the person. Proponents of identity first language are usually disabled activists who argue that their disability is part of their identity, part of what makes them who they are and they are proud of who they are. They do not feel the need to separate themselves from the disability, as without their disability they would be a different person.
Proponents of person first language argue that a person is not their disability, and that in order to put the person before the disability, people should use phrases such as “she is a person with autism”, “he is a student with a disability”. This language is favoured by parents and professionals.
The personal preferences of an individual may vary, some people with autism prefer to be referred to in that manner, but the majority of autistic people generally prefer identity first language. I myself have no personal preference, I use whatever works best within the sentence and context I am speaking or writing in. Given the preferences of the majority of the autistic community, I tend to predominantly use identity first language, however I don’t mind what language others use about me.
My personal preferences aside, it is important to respect every individual’s preferences. When talking about the autistic community in general, it is better to use IFL, as that is the preference of the majority. However, if a certain person prefers PFL, that is what you should use to refer to that person.
The most popular reasoning behind the use of PFL is that emphasis should be placed on the fact that an individual is a person, and not on their disability. However, many of the parents and professionals advocating PFL are also those advocating the use of abusive ‘therapies’ such as Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) that treat autistic people as less human than neurotypical people.
Identity first language follows the same pattern as statements like “I am Scottish”, or “I am asexual” – as in the same pattern as other identities. If an autistic person was not autistic, they would be a different person – and IFL reflects this. You cannot separate the autism from the person, the way PFL implies.
Last week, Autism Action Colorado, a group claiming to be founded in 2014, who had no online presence until this year, tweeted in favour of PFL, claiming that “person with autism” should be used in the same way as “person with cancer”. This is incredibly offensive, comparing autism with cancer.
We should always respect people’s personal preferences, including their language preferences. Some people will prefer person first language, others will prefer identity first language. Communities as a whole will have a majority preference. All of these should be respected.
Advocates of both PFL and IFL have one thing in common – they both aim to show that disabled people are people. So whatever side you are currently on, I ask of you to respect the choices of these people, and to show you think of them as people by using the language preferred by each individual.