Person-first language is a specific way of speaking about people with disabilities. I just used it, in fact, when I said “people with disabilities”. By putting the person before the condition (for example, referring to myself as a “person with disabilities” instead of “disabled”), I affirm my personhood before my condition. I stress that myself and others that I am more than my disabilities.
Readers that are familiar with person-first language likely notice that I use it constantly in this blog. I’ve never liked the term “disabled”, personally. It has negative connotations for me. Particularly right after my stroke, I was hell-bent on distancing myself from the idea that my new physical limitations prevented me from doing what I wanted to, so I wanted my personhood affirmed before my disabilities. I wanted those disabilities to fade into the background as much as possible – not because I saw them as intrinsically bad, but because I wanted them to just be irrelevant.
The Debate About Person-First Language
From the time that I started volunteering with agencies that support with disabilities (there I go again) when I was fifteen, through my developmental services worker training, through my paid employment, the importance of person-first language has been drilled into me. It’s automatic. I’ve read blogs that use “disabled” rather than “person with disability” or “Autistic” rather than “person with autism”, and just thought, “Tsk, tsk, no person-first”, or assumed that the writer hadn’t been educated about it.
After all the times that I’ve said to ask, not assume…shame on me.
A few days ago, I read this post by Lydia Brown over at Autistic Hoya, and had my mind blown: http://autistichoya.blogspot.ca/2011/08/significance-of-semantics-person-first.html
I had no idea that so many people felt so strongly about being called “Autistic” as opposed to “person with autism”.
I hadn’t considered the idea that person-first language, for so many disabled people (Autistic, Blind and Deaf people in particular) does the opposite of what it’s intended to do. And I see their point. When you see autism, for example, as part of what makes you who you are, then attempts to compartmentalize it from your personhood are…insulting. They imply that there’s a “you” that exists uninfluenced by autism and its effects on your brain’s wiring. They also imply that there’s something wrong with autism, that your “personhood” would be enhanced without it.
Lydia and other bloggers that I read on this subject made the argument that we don’t use this sort of terminology with any of the other identifiers in life. I do not say, “I am a person with Canadianness/disability advocateness/writingness/daughterness/sisterness/sister-in-lawness/ auntness/ friendness”…I say, “I am a “Canadian/disability advocate/writer/daughter/sister/aunt/ friend”. You can’t separate me from these things, any more than you can separate an Autistic person from autism.
And I know from experience, from listening to others, from writing this blog and reading other blogs, that I can’t make my disabilities irrelevant. They do affect my experience in this world, no matter how much I wish they wouldn’t. I know that person-first language has not made the “personhood” of disabled people safe from poverty, abuse, assault, and even murder, just because of their disabilities. I like to think that I’ve moved past the idea that my disabilities are something that I *need* to make irrelevant in my life out of fear of peoples’ negative perceptions of disability, but perhaps it’s time to do some personal reflection on this…and some more intense work on self-acceptance (and my efficacy as an advocate).
I am who I am today because my brain functions a bit differently than other peoples’. I am disabled, and it’s fine.
A Sincere Apology
And I apologize from the bottom of my heart to anyone that’s been negatively affected by my using person-first language in this blog. I truly did not realize the scope of this issue. I do think that person-first language has its own strengths. But because I now know the extent to which the debate over the appropriateness of person-first language affects the autism community in particular, I won’t use it anymore when I talk about autism, and I’m seriously going to reconsider whether I should use person-first language at all anymore.
To some it may sound like an issue of semantics, but it’s obviously anything but for many people. I want to be respectful and not make assumptions. I’m rather ashamed that I’ve gone this long without being aware of the controversy over person-first language. Reading the perspectives of the people who’d rather it not be used has been enlightening and truly humbling.
What are your thoughts on this issue?
Another excellent post by an opponent of person-first language: http://juststimming.wordpress.com/2011/08/23/dear-autism-parents/