How Person-First Language can be Dehumanizing

For the past decade or so, there are a lot of people who have been pushing for the use of what is called “Person First Language.” Basically, the idea is that when you’re talking about a disabled person, you’re supposed to always put the word “person” before any description of disability. For example “person with autism” or “person with cerebral palsy” or “person with a hearing impairment.” This as opposed to what I will call “identity first language,” which would look like “autistic person” or “deaf person” or “intellectually disabled person.”

The supposed logic behind it is that disabled people are people, and so we need to honor this by literally putting “person” in front of their disability.

But here’s the thing: the mindset behind this can actually be rather dehumanizing, and accomplish the exact opposite of what person first language is supposed to do.

You’ll notice this blog is written almost entirely in identity first language. This is intentional. Part of that has to do with the fact that person first language is awkward and clunky when used all the time, so writing and speaking just flows better with identity first language. For the most part, however, I am using identity first language because I have specifically chosen to identify myself this way (and because it is the preference of most of the autistic community, but more on that later).

You see, there are all kinds of things that we describe ourselves as. You might be an American, an athlete, a Jewish person, a woman, a brunette, or any number of other things. And, of course, none of these things prevent you from being a person. So, by the logic of person first language, shouldn’t we be demanding to be called a person who lives in America, a person with athleticism, a person who belongs to the Jewish faith, a person with femaleness, or a person with brown hair? No one is insisting this, so why is it different with disability?

Disabilities are no different than these other things. They’re just part of life for some people. Disabilities don’t make you any less a person than any of the other things I just mentioned, so why must we put “person” in front of disabilities and not anything else? Insistence on person first language has the underlying assumption with it that a disability somehow makes you less of a person, and so therefore we need to put person in front of the label to make up for this.

And you shouldn’t need to hear “person” before autism to still consider me a person. That should be a given. It should be blatantly obvious that that I am a person. If you honestly need a constant reminder that someone with a disability is a person, then you seriously need to open your mind.

I’ve heard some defend person first language by saying something to the degree of “it’s rude to define people that way.” But is it really? We define people by their characteristics all the time. Someone might be an athlete, and we call them athletic, not a “person with athleticism.” Again, why is it different for autism? Here again, person first language makes the assumption that a disability is automatically a negative attribute. And this can be offensive.

Disability communities that reject person first language, like the Autistic community, the Deaf community, and the Blind community, do not see their disabilities as negative attributes. One of the key focuses of the Neurodiversity movement is that while autism certainly is a disability that can cause challenges because of the way the world is set up, it is not a negative characteristic. It is just a difference.

You see, I am not Quincy with some autism sprinkled on top. As was once stated, “I don’t ever forget to pack the autism when I go on a vacation.” Autism affects the way I process the world, and therefore it is deeply engrained in who I am.

But autism doesn’t define you!” They say. But here’s the thing: autism does define me. It defines the very way I see, understand, and interact with the world. It is a deep part of who I am. And that is awesome! I am autistic, and I am proud of that. It’s just one of the many things that makes me who I am, and there is no need to make it seem negative by using person first language.

Most of the autistic community, and to an extent the larger disabled community, prefers identity first language. Each person has their own preferences, and there are a few disability communities that prefer person first language, and these preferences should be respected. However, this goes both ways. The autistic community has decided that identity first language is our preference. So, what actually is rude, is to correct a person on how they them self choose to talk about themselves. I’ve been corrected so many times by people who think I should be using person first language when I’m literally describing myself. Every time it happens, I want to scream. It especially frustrates me because, as an autistic person, I struggle to communicate a lot of topics, and so by correcting me I also know they’ve paid more attention to that than to what I was actually trying to say.

In the end, person first language, while meaning well, is actually built on a few assumptions that are rather ableist. Person first language ends up doing the exact opposite of what it intends: it often dehumanizes autistic people. (Plus, it’s really only applicable to English because of our grammar structure. For example, “person with autism” in Spanish is Persona con autismo while “autistic person” is Persona autistico/a. The person comes “first” in both cases.) So, I encourage anyone reading to stop the insistence on person first language when it comes to autistic people. It really isn’t what the majority of autistic people prefer. And I ask that you please respect how each person decides to talk about themselves, and know that “autistic” is often said with pride. It is not a derogatory term or a four-letter word.

Read more:

Graphic with black text on a white background reads “The Autistic community prefers to be referred to as Autistic, in much the same way the Blind and Deaf communities prefer to be referred to as Blind or Deaf. To drive the point home, the terms hearing impaired and visually impaired are often offensive to the Blind and Deaf communities. Referring to an Autistic person as a person with autism is often offensive in the Autistic community.”

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