Identity First Language

Published July 23, 2022

Identity-first language should be a linguistic staple of anyone who interacts with the disability community.

Disability language recap

Identity-first language is essentially the opposite of the people-first language, which is well-known and often used in the media. To give readers a refresher, people-first language involves terms such as “people with disabilities” or “people with support needs.” Such phrases are meant to “separate a person from the disability that they possess.” In other words, when people use people-first language, it can mean that “a person’s disability is significant enough to be a part of their identity, but it is not the defining part of that identity.”

Identity-first language conveys the opposite message. Language such as “disabled person” emphasizes someone’s disability as an embedded, inherent part of the person’s identity, the front, and forefront of someone’s personhood.

Why do people use identity-first language?

As APA Style observed, identity-first language is often used to reclaim the label “disability,” which has often had negative connotations in our society. Some may put their disability at the center of their identity to display how thoroughly society’s inaccessibility disables them. This reasoning is meant to debunk the common conception that people have disabilities because of their own inabilities. Others use these labels to highlight how much their disability, in and of itself, impacts their life.

The above explanations cover just a few of the many reasons someone may choose to use identity-first language. Everyone who uses identity-first language has different reasons that are rooted in their own personal feelings about their disability.

Disabled people have written at length about their rationale for using identity-first language. Disability activist and autistic person Lydia Brown argued, in a passage that is abridged here, that:

It is impossible to separate a person from autism, just as it is impossible to separate a person from the color of his or her skin.

Autism is an edifying and meaningful component of a person’s identity, and it defines the ways in which an individual experiences and understands the world around him or her. It is all-pervasive.

It is impossible to affirm the value and worth of an Autistic person without recognizing their identity as an Autistic person. Referring to me as ‘a person with autism,’ or ‘an individual with ASD’ demeans who I am because it denies who I am.

When we say ‘Autistic person,’ we recognize, affirm, and validate an individual’s identity as an Autistic person. We recognize the value and worth of that individual as an Autistic person — that being Autistic is not a condition absolutely irreconcilable with regarding people as inherently valuable and worth something. We affirm the individual’s potential to grow and mature, to overcome challenges and disability, and to live a meaningful life as an Autistic. Ultimately, we are accepting that the individual is different from non-Autistic people–and that that’s not a tragedy, and we are showing that we are not afraid or ashamed to recognize that difference.

Writer Cara Liebowitz remarked that she uses identity-first language. This is because:

I’m a Jewish woman. No one questions that. Yet when I dare to call myself a disabled person, it seems the whole world turns upside down. That’s because gender and religion are seen as neutral, if not positive, characteristics. The idea of separating the disability from the person stems from the idea that disability is something you should want to have separated from you, like a rotten tooth that needs to be pulled out.

Disability is only negative because society makes it so. For sure, there are negative aspects of my disability. For the sake of simplicity, I’m focusing solely on my physical disability, which is both the most visible and the most integrated into my being. Chronic pain and fatigue are no picnic. But for the most part, my disability is just another thread in the tapestry of my life. Pull it and the whole thing might unravel. Pull it and you might get an ugly hole where something beautiful once was.

In other words, many disabled people like Brown and Liebowitz view their disability as an integral part of their being. They view it as a natural, or even prized facet, of themselves, and they use identity-first language to express such.


Disability and language are very complicated. The difference between identity-first and people-first language can seem confusing to many people. Erin Hawley, who is the National Aging & Disability Transportation Center Communications Consultant, even said that:

It is worth mentioning that people with disabilities who don’t want to use identity-first language are not necessarily ashamed of their disabilities – they may have a different relationship to them, or they simply don’t have a language preference either way. Conversely, some disabled people who use identity-first language don’t care if you use person-first.

So, which terms should you use? It depends on context. If you are communicating with someone one-on-one, just ask them what they prefer. If you are writing something for a larger audience, it is usually best if default to person-first. Either way, asking first is always the best thing to do.

Hawley has the right idea. When you wonder whether to use identity-first or people-first language, asking the people affected by such language what they prefer is always the best option. When you respect the language that people prefer, you respect the disability community’s right to be whoever they want to be.


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