Opinion

Person-first language causes more discrimination

At The Valley Vanguard, we’ve been doing some workshops on AP style and common mistakes we make.

One of these was the use of “person-first language.” This means instead of saying that someone is disabled, they are a “person with a disability.” Using person-first language would mean referring to myself as a “person with type 1 diabetes” instead of just a type 1 diabetic.

I personally dislike person-first language for many reasons. The first is that it feels condescending and like meaningless pandering. Most peoples’ reasoning for using person-first language is that they believe it puts the person before their disability. I have a problem with this.

First off, it feels like a euphemism. It implies that outright saying their disability or health condition is something to be ashamed of and thus leads to more stigma. This is also why I dislike the term “differently abled.”

It’s also just clunky language and unnecessarily wordy. There are only a few circumstances where person-first language has flowed as naturally as identity first.

You can say someone is epileptic instead of saying they are a person with epilepsy, but there isn’t an identity first word for some conditions, like endometriosis, for example.

No amount of calling someone a “person with a disability” will change discrimination against them or exploitation by the health care system.

People are going to make assumptions and potentially discriminate against me no matter how hard I try to hide my health issues or conform to the standards someone with functioning organs has, so I might as well be upfront and blunt with my needs.

It’s kind of liberating to become an advocate for myself and refuse to let people treat my chronic illness as something taboo or something that makes me lesser.

Most people also prefer identity first language, but no one cares enough to listen to what disabled people say to know that.

Instead, people will talk over them and insist they know what’s best regarding something they don’t understand. If so-called “activists” and “allies” would read the blogs, editorials and social media accounts of disabled people, they would have a better understanding.

If you want to truly be a good disability activist and ally, listen to what disabled people prefer. Do more things to fight discrimination besides just pat yourself on the back for using “woke” or “politically correct” language.

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  1. The resistance to people-first language is quite new to me. I was very involved in disability rights at the passing of the ADA. At that time, person-first language was very much desired by most of the disabilities community with the exception of much of the deaf community; in response to that community we provided identity-first language. The idea behind person-first language is that one’s disability isn’t one’s entire identity; it doesn’t define the whole person. This is why I teach person-first language in my classes.

    I’m an individual with more than one disability; mine aren’t visible, but sometimes I have to address my disabilities because I can’t do something that needs doing or I’m in a situation that isn’t healthy in light of my disability. I’d be very uncomfortable if someone called me “a Sjogren’s person” or “a Sjogren’s victim” or a “PTSD person.” I feel as though such labels let the disability define me. If the occasion arises where my disability must be acknowledged, I prefer that someone says “Beth has Sjogren’s syndrome” or “Beth has PTSD.” By the same token, my foster son would prefer to be called “J the pianist” or “the guy with long hair and shades” rather than “the blind guy.”

    Language creates reality. Person-first language has a long, studied history of changing people’s attitudes toward people with disabilities. I remember a time when the disability was seen first and the language reflected it; it was a time when people with disabilities didn’t have a place in the classroom, board room, or public life in general. Perhaps people-first terminology is dated, but it has done good work in this country. Yet we still have “handicapped” parking rather than “accessible parking,”–a reference to a time when people with disabilities had to make a living by standing with cap in hand to collect chain from passersby.

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