I’ve talked about disability and self labeling before, I am no going to rehash my reasons again but there is an aspect of the debate around person first and identity first language that I’d like to take a look at.
Language and how it’s used is complicated and as a result, how language is used often deviates from the original intention. However for context here is a brief description of the original intent of both person first and identity first labeling.
Person First: as in person with a disability (as opposed to disabled person), person with with autism (as opposed to autistic person) was conceived to combat stigma around the term disability. It was meant to show the humanity of the person with a disability diagnosis by highlighting the individual’s personhood first. Disability was just tangential.
Person first language sprung from a medical understanding of disability, where disability was seen as the problem so it had to be de-emphasized.
Identity first: as in disabled person (as opposed to person with a disability) was originally conceived to challenge the medical view of disability and replace it with a socio-cultural view. It wasn’t people’s diagnoses that were the problem, it was society. Society was the main cause of disablement. Saying you were a disabled person was originally not about identity at all it was an acknowledgement that society was the predominant cause of barriers for people with impairments (see my post here for a more in depth breakdown of the social model of disability). It was a way of calling attention to society’s physical and social barriers by tying oppression to the term disablement.
I sincerely doubt that most people who use identity first language are doing so to constantly be saying “hey you are oppressing me” or “hey I’m oppressed” (even though those two statements are likely true). They do it for the same reasons I do. It is a way to reject the idea that disability is a dirty word and to say that disability can be a part of a person’s identity without sacrificing their humanity. It’s a pushback against the stigma associated with disability (for more see this piece by Emily Ladau).
It is from this perspective that I will be dealing with an issue that I often see in the debate between person first language (PFL) and identity first language (IFL).
There are several defenders of PFL who reject the idea of disability as negative but maintain the use of PFL because they feel that using IFL means they are letting disability define them and they are more complex than one identifier.
I honestly find this reasoning a little ridiculous. All people are complex and embody multiple identities that may include race, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, nationality and more and yes even disability. I would argue that most people who identify with any of these things don’t then reject everything else. I have yet to hear an argument where someone has to argue where their religion is placed in a sentence by themselves or others means that it is completely defining them.
When it comes to being defined by a single identifier, it is not usually the individual being labeled doing the defining. It is someone else. In terms of identities that are marginalized the person doing the defining is probably being bigoted. People are far to complicated to be reduced to a single label.
Ultimately, it shouldn’t matter where disability is put in a sentence before or after person. It should just be a description. I admit I often use disabled person and person with a disability interchangeably when speaking about people generally just to have variety in my writing.
I however, choose to use IFL to directly challenge the bigotry inherent in assuming that I must be separated from my body to be considered human. I most definitely don’t do it to pigeon hole my identity into one label. I am far to complicated for that, just like everyone else.
I continue to believe that people should have the right to self-label and I endeavor to respect people’s personal preferences because we have been labeled by others far to often and it is time for us to take over the conversation about our own lives. I will not however accept the idea that my choice in sentence structure means that I am limiting my identity.