Is Person-First Language Always the Best Choice?

Published August 24, 2022

Person-first language (PFL) involves putting emphasis on a person rather than their disability. When using person-first language, for example, one would say “the man who is blind” rather than “the blind man” or “an individual with a disability” instead of “a disabled person.” But is person-first language always the best choice? 

Why use PFL?

The use of PFL is intended to put the person before the disability. Generally speaking, the use of PFL is based on the idea that a person's disability does not define them—it is only a small part of the many things that make them unique. 

It emphasizes that a person's disability does not classify who they are as a person, but rather, is one of the many things that make up their character and personhood. Most importantly, the use of PFL is widely believed to discourage dehumanization and marginalization as it places the person first, rather than a condition, or race, for example. 

There are some drawbacks to using person-first language. Some people with disabilities feel as though person-first language makes disabilities sound as though they are diseases. Other people with disabilities feel as though person-first language has made the term “disabled person” appear as an insult. Having a disability is neither negative nor derogatory, and to some, shying away from calling someone a disabled person makes it seem as though being disabled is something shameful.

What is identity-first language?

Identity-first language comes from a different school of thought. It implies that a person’s disability is a part of who they are, making it a key part of their identity. Disability is seen as a positive cultural identifier. Identity-first language is often preferred by members of the autistic, deaf, and blind communities. That said, the best practice is to just ask the person what they prefer. 

There are issues with identity-first language, however, which include leading some people to believe that someone’s disability wholly defines them as a person and who they are.

How do you know which is appropriate?

At the end of the day, the most appropriate thing to do when you don’t know what someone prefers is to ask. Ask the person you are interacting with if they prefer identity-first or person-first language regarding their disability. Some disability advocates such as Jevon Okundaye, an autistic man, even suggests using person-first language and identity-first language as tools for different situations. To highlight comparisons between people with and people without disabilities, try to use person-first language. For example, “students with disabilities should share the same spaces on school grounds.” Alternatively, to highlight something that is specific to disabled people, use identity-first language. For example, “disabled students deserve to receive accommodations to help achieve their goals”.

It’s up to the individual

Some people choose to identify with aspects of who they are, such as their race, ethnicity, gender, or disability, to name a few. Others prefer to keep those pieces of who they are as just that—pieces of their identity. Neither way of thinking, and neither way of speaking, is wrong. It’s up to the individual to decide what they are comfortable with, and it’s up to us to respect whatever form of language they prefer.

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