Person First or Identity First Language

By Cassie Brusch – Project Consultant

Over the course of the 2000s, we have often been encouraged to use Person-First Language when speaking about individuals with disabilities. More recently, Identity-First Language has been introduced. As we navigate the ever-changing landscape of what is seen as inclusive, let’s unpack these terms a little more.

In Person-First Language, we put the person before their disability or diagnosis. This shows that the person is separate from their disability. Identify-First Language acknowledges the disability, which shows that it is an integral part of who the person is. It takes into account that their disability or diagnosis identifies the person as part of the community, culture, and history associated with that disability. Language matters; it is a personal choice for each individual as to their preference. It is inappropriate to refer to someone as their mobility equipment. A person is a person, not a machine, and it is demeaning to refer to them otherwise.  

Person-First Language is rooted in advocacy for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The People-First movement started in the 1970s, which was a movement to focus on personhood and individuality rather than on disability. This language reinforces that people with disabilities are human and deserve to be respected. Typically, medical conditions and mood disorders use Person-First Language, such as a student with diabetes or a person with epilepsy. Since this movement, there has been legislation passed that has protected the rights of people with disabilities. Additionally, there has been a decrease in the institutionalization of people with disabilities. 

Question In Maze Showing Confusion

Why the switch away from Person-First Language?  While meant to help society see individuals with disabilities as a person and not their disability, it can sometimes link disabilities to a disease. This connection between disabilities and disease can support the notion that if the disability is a disease, then there should be a cure. Disabilities are not contagious and people do not need to be cured of their disabilities.

Identity-First Language honors the person at the conscious level, it gets to the heart of who the person is and how they identify. This has arisen out of the Disability Pride movement, which affirms that a disability is nothing to be ashamed of and that a person’s disability shapes their life.  The use of identity first in the language respects that the person is part of the broader community and culture with people who have that disability. Individuals with Autism as well as those in the Deaf Blind community often feel very connected to their disability and do not see it as a deficit or something needed to be cured. Using Identity-First Language shows that the person is valued for how they identify and not just by disability, hair color, gender, and so on.

Deciding which type of language to use can feel overwhelming. As previously stated, it is a personal choice for people in the disability community.  If you’re not sure, just ask If the individual isn’t sure how they want to identify, or you’re not sure what to do, it’s fine to use Person First Language.

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