What is the argument for disability-first? For many who are not a part of a marginalized community or who have never had this topic applied to themselves may think that using someone’s disability as a descriptor is rude. After all, society is slowly moving towards acceptance and equality, so why should it matter if someone has a diagnosis or a disability? Well, Autistic Advocacy presents the argument that we use descriptive terms first for other communities-- the white person, the Mexican person, the gay person-- so why are we singling out other communities? They write that “in the autism community, many self-advocates and their allies prefer terminology such as “Autistic,” “Autistic person,” or “Autistic individual” because we understand autism as an inherent part of an individual’s identity.”
Another view of the argument comes from Molly Burke, who says in her video on the subject of Disabled vs Differently Abled, “people don’t like calling me blind. It is almost as if they think I don’t already know. They’ll be like ‘Molly is visually impared, she can’t see as well as everybody else,’ and I’m like ‘no, no, I’m blind.’” She further expands on this subject to say “people use the term because they’re just really uncomfortable with disability, but they’re actually trying to make it seem like they’re super comfortable with it.” From her experience as a blind woman, she argues that people tend to shy away from direct terms because they want to appear as someone who is very accepting and politically correct, but does not care to truly listen to those who they are talking about. Something she touches on is that if we ignore or try to cover up the disability someone has, it diminishes the struggle and hardship they go through by being different. Should we not address the strength it takes to come to grips with how you may have more challenges than those who are not affected?
(By person first, we simply mean putting the pronoun or name before the disability in a descriptive sentence).
The other side of the argument is that not everyone is comfortable with their disability. Perhaps you have been recently diagnosed or are embarrassed (acceptance is a long and personal journey, but having challenges or a disability DOES NOT make you less than) and don’t want to be known for having autism. Cara Liebowitz writes in The Body Is Not an Apology to say how “I can understand where the impulse to use people-first language comes from. After all, I don’t want to be identified solely on the basis of my disabilities. If I had to choose between the two, I’d much rather be known as That loudmouth who never shuts up in class than That girl with the walker.” However, she goes on to express that she still believes that “Though person-first language is designed to promote respect, the concept is based on the idea that disability is something negative, something that you shouldn’t want to see.” This is why it is important to listen to that individual themself, and not make assumptions for them.
Another reason why people tend to use person-first language is that it is often spoken and taught that way in schools and in the media. People who hear this and don’t know many autistic individuals personally or have not looked into the topic think that this is the correct and only acceptable way to talk. A lack of proper representation and education perpetuates this. And it is not incorrect to use person-first language, I want to stress this. If you, as someone with ASD, prefers this or thinks it does convey respect, then it can be used. As we know, no person with autism is the same. No human is the same. It all comes down to respecting other people’s opinions and experiences and making sure that you keep yourself educated on subjects before making broad and sweeping claims.
Links mentioned in above article:
Poll on Your Preferences: https://strawpoll.com/9pyfcpdzs
Why I Hate Being Called “Differently Abled.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0n8d9U5xRro&t=838s
Identity First Language: https://autisticadvocacy.org/about-asan/identity-first-language/
I am Disabled: On Identity-First vs People-First Language: https://thebodyisnotanapology.com/magazine/i-am-disabled-on-identity-first-versus-people-first-language/
Written by Katy Evans