Which sounds better: “A disabled man,” or “A man with disabilities?” On the surface, they both say the same thing — there’s the subject, a man, and he is experiencing disability. Beneath that, there’s an entire web of social and linguistic nuance woven through those three or four words.
Person-first language is put forth as a solution to “othering.” By emphasizing that a disabled or neuroatypical person is, first and foremost, a person, it seeks to de-emphasize that which makes them different from someone without those experiences. It’s also a hotly debated topic, both by those to whom it applies and those who talk about them. It’s not really standard language, but there are a lot of people who have perfectly valid reasons for preferring it. Like anything else pertaining to personal identity, I try to follow people’s leads and use whatever language they’re more comfortable with.
When it’s applied to me, I absolutely hate it.
I was reading a forum I occasionally lurk on, and came across an exchange between two posters where one was lambasting the other for not using person-first language. Person A had typed a post mentioning “a disabled person,” and person B lit into them for not using “a person with a disability” instead. Something about person B (who is not disabled) really got under my skin. I could feel the annoyance like an itchy shirt, but I wasn’t really sure why. What is it that makes me so against person-first language? Adding “with” to a sentence seems inoffensive enough, right? So, I sat down to figure it out.
Obviously I’m not speaking for all neuroatypical or disabled people, there are plenty of reasons why others may find identity-first language inaccurate or offensive. Here’s why I feel so strongly against person-first language for myself:
It paradoxically places more emphasis on the condition. Calling me a disabled person is short and descriptive. Calling me a person with disabilities requires an extra word and ungainly phrasing to accomplish the same thing. When I hear someone go out of their way to describe me as “a person with disabilities,” that’s exactly what it feels like — they’re going out of their way instead of using a perfectly ordinary phrase. It’s not a whole lot of extra attention placed on my disabilities, but it’s enough to make me cringe inside.
Seriously though, it does. The places I most commonly see person-first language are in English, where there’s an expectation of where adjectives and nouns will fall in a sentence. (English speakers all follow grammatical rules that even dictate the order of our adjectives, though virtually none of us can remember being told to do it that way. We just do it.) I expect to hear the subject of the sentence after its descriptors. When someone’s talking about a person and I hear the noun form of an adjective come after the subject, there’s a split “Wait, what?” second in my brain that catches my attention. Not a big deal when you’re talking about someone with brown hair or a blue shirt, slightly bigger deal when you’re deliberately trying not to emphasize a disability.
It’s not evenly applied. I am a “person with disabilities,” but not a “person with cooking skill” or a “person who writes.” Person-first language is only used for attributes perceived as undesirable, and couldn’t be more transparent in doing so. Similarly, nobody would refer to my S.O. as a “person with good health.” Why? Isn’t he a person too, or does this condescension only apply to poor unfortunates like me? Is it really necessary to have that much reminding that I’m a person?
It’s not that easy to remove. Living with a long-term, chronic disability is not the same as having, say, a sprained ankle. The situation I live with affects how I think, feel, and (to a lesser extent) behave in ways that being “a person with measles” or “a person with a broken arm” don’t. My disabilities don’t define my life, but putting extra words in between them and me like linguistic bubble wrap has no impact on my reality.
It sounds awkward. I fully acknowledge that this is probably really petty. But, like I said before, things that don’t flow easily in conversation draw attention to themselves. Sometimes even things that are perfectly grammatically correct still lead to awkward prose. If the purpose of using person-first language about me is to emphasize me over my conditions, this seems counterproductive.
It’s denial at best, and patronizing virtue signalling at worst. Saying “I see people, not race” misses quite a few important things, and so does “I see people, not their disabilities.” The implication there is that there’s something inherently dehumanizing in being disabled, that one has to consciously (and oh-so-generously) look past that to even see a person. It reinforces a disabled/able-bodied binary. It essentially reads as shorthand for, “I’m nice, but also willfully ignorant.”
When all is said and done, the slogan of “See the person, not the disability,” is based on the premise that disability can be separated from the person, leaving only that person’s humanity. The problem with this line of reasoning, of course, is that disability is inseparable from humanity. We all have bodies that are diverse, that are created in ways beyond our control, that change without our consent, and that are vulnerable to age, to accident, to illness, and to all of the contingencies of life. So if you want to see the whole person, look carefully at the disability, because that is where a core feature of our humanity lies.
— Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg, The Problem With Person-First Language
Most of the people I see using it are those who are never on the receiving end. Another petty gripe, probably, but I’m kind of big on “nothing about us without us.” It really grates on me to see some sanctimonious internet rando patting themselves on the back for using person-first language (or worse, correcting someone who doesn’t) without any mention of whether or not the person or group they’re talking about actually prefers they do so. While person-first language might seem fashionably socially aware, nobody is handing out medals for going against the preferences of a significant portion of actual disabled people.
It’s not going to change anything. I am disabled, my brain is damaged. While neither of these things are all that desirable, needing accommodations for a disability is not inherently negative. Talking about people in what we perceive as negative states is an endless chase. No matter what names different conditions are given, they eventually evolve into adjectives used to describe bad things we want to distance ourselves from. This is because, at the end of the day, not being perfectly healthy kind of sucks. All of the language in the world is not going to make that go away. Does that mean we shouldn’t try? I don’t know. I wish there was a better answer than what we’ve got.
If you use person-first language out of a sincere desire to be sensitive to the identities of disabled people, I hope this hasn’t made you feel bad. I think most people adopt linguistic constructions like this out of a genuine want to do good, but some are real dicks about it. Whether you choose to use person-first or identity-first language, it’s worthwhile to explore your reasons for doing so — is it because disabled or neuroatypical people have indicated that they prefer it, or because some (probably able-bodied, probably neurotypical) academic said it was “better”?
At the end of the day, I feel that person-first language inadvertently adds to the stigma it’s trying to remove. By using unwieldy phrasing only for those attributes which are commonly viewed as undesirable, it does the opposite of emphasizing people first. I’ll use it for someone who prefers it (or alternate if I’m referring to a large group) but, until healthy people get stuck being described as “people of good health and typical neurological function” in casual conversation, I’m not buying it.
I am disabled. I am visually- and hearing-impaired. My brain is damaged. I am a disabled, visually- and hearing-impaired, brain damaged person. I am also a writer, artist, lover, Pagan, cat owner, mineral collector, indoor gardener, taphophile, and folk metal fan. Anyone who can’t see my humanity is not going to be changed by the word “with.”
Do you use person-first language, either for yourself or others? Why or why not?