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Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Person-First Language: A Closer Look

Person in wheelchair rolls down busy sidewalk - Person-first language

The other day, I read Emily Ladau's piece on why she uses identity-first language instead of person-first language, and I really liked it. She provided a great analysis of how person-first language became the *only* correct terminology to use for a while, and clearly explained why it's because very important for many disabled people to self-identify using identity-first and not person-first language.

Including me.

I used person-first language for over two decades, up to and after my stroke. I was trained to use it. I explained to others why it was the most respectful language to use. I wrote probably the first 1.5 years of posts in this blog using person-first language.

It took reading a post by autism advocate Lydia Brown and couple of hours reading some perspectives on people-first vs identity-first language to prompt me to rethink my stance. And now I do prefer to use identity-first language for myself and in my writing. I only use person-first language it when I'm talking to/about someone who has stated a preference for it.

But when I shared Emily's article on the GirlWithTheCane Facebook page, I included a bit of commentary about a discussion I had with someone after I wrote my first blog post about person-first language vs identity-first:

"I've blogged about this subject too, and had someone point out to me though that, as much as person-first is falling out of favour today, we should acknowledge that it was revolutionary when people started using it."

Person-First Language Was a Game-Changer

There's a historical context to person-first language that I think we sometimes forget.  It's not as if, as disability activist and blogger Andrew Pulrang pointed out on the Facebook page, that person-first language is "some tool of oppression cooked up by non-disabled people." It wasn't so long ago that it would have seemed silly to call a disabled person a "person with a disability" because disabled people weren't considered people.  For people to start saying, for example, "He is a person with Down Syndrome" instead of "He's Down's" would have been nothing short of a paradigm shift.

It's worth noting that some groups (like the Deaf community) didn't like person-first language from the outset and that, as Emily noted, other communities have become disillusioned with it, such as the autistic community. I understand that. As disabled people, we should always be open to moving away from what no longer works, because there are still so many barriers to true equality to be torn down, and some of it is really life and death.

But I think that we need to appreciate the historical context of the things from which we're moving away, including person-first language.

How Much Does Person-First Language vs Identity First Language Matter in the Long Run?

We've rightfully discarded so much of what's been historically considered "right" and "appropriate" for disabled people because it was neither. Institutional care for intellectually disabled people, for example, has historically been abusive and in violation of even basic human rights.

Person-first language was a response to a culture where disabled people weren't seen (or treated) as human. It was intended to do good and actually did. It wasn't a wrong that needed to be abandoned, and still hasn't become one. While it's being used less and less, many disabled people still prefer to self-identify using person-first language. Does it hurt disabled identity-first language defenders that that there are disabled people out there that use person-first language, and vice versa, as long as we respect each others' preferences?   In my opinion, it doesn't, and no one should be made to feel uncomfortable or wrong for wanting to use one over the other.

There are still such major battles to be fought, and so much debate about this. Has it become divisive when more division is the last thing we need?

Which is not to say that Emily didn't write a great article.  I've been wanting to write about this for a long time, and her article just got me moving.

In Other News...

I've written a short Kindle book about the inpatient stroke rehabilitation experience, and plan to write some more about post-stroke life. Right now I'm trying to keep them very practical, but I want to explore some ideas about disability rights issues later in the series. Visit the website for updates: strokeguides.com.


  1. I agree with Andrew that person-first language is not a tool of oppression cooked up by non-disabled people. Yes, yes. It had a wonderful beginning. What is oppressive is when disabled people are told they are wrong for choosing identity-first language or for choosing person-first language. I also frequently encounter non-disabled people speaking for disabilities communities about what "they" want to be called without checking in with any of us...which usually leads to them telling us we're wrong if and when we do chime in with ideas, opinions, historical information, etc.

  2. Yes, all of that is true. It's the imposition of one or the other that's the sticking point. And it's been a lot of non-disabled people that have been doing the imposing. I've seen this in action as well. As usual, very well-stated, Cheryl...

    I think I owe you an email...I will send one soon!