“But you need to use person-first language!” comes up a lot on the internet. I get it. If you’re in a helping profession, that’s been drilled into you. The intention was for people to stop dehumanizing people with disabilities. And language matters. Language can break down cultural biases or reinforce stigma. Think about every time someone uses the r-word to describe something they dislike… It’s creating an association between one mental image and another, an association that only furthers the negative or even hateful views our world holds.
In this case, though, the impact of the language change was different than the intent. For many, it reinforces a different cultural view — that disability is something we can “slice away”, something to eliminate. Instead, we advocate remembering that disability is an essential part of who a person is. You cannot split someone from their autism. You cannot split someone from their deafness. It is essential. It shapes everything.
Because of this, many communities advocate identity-first language. You’ll hear it a lot in this blog. This means saying “autistic” instead of “with autism”. “Disabled” instead of “with a disability”. This isn’t by chance. It’s not something we need education on. It’s a deliberate decision to support disabled activists everywhere.
You’ll still see some person first language. For starters, because what matters most is how THAT person wants to identify. If someone tells me they prefer “I have a hearing impairment”, then I’m going to use that language. Second, there are some disabilities that I don’t know if we have an identity-first descriptor as of yet.
The biggest thing is: respect what people choose for themselves. And know that all of your words matter, but your actions matter even more. If you use person-first language, but also support sub-minimum wage? Then your words are just that… Words. Without meaning. We can do better.