Person-first vs identity-first.

I haven’t put down in words my opinion on the person-first/identity-first debate, so I will.

For other people: I defer to the person speaking, if they are a person with the disorder/disability in question. I would not presume to challenge a person who prefers to call hirself a “person with visual impairment,” even if I know the broader community tends to prefer identity-first language. If the person is not currently affected by the disorder/disability in question and I happen to know the commonly-preferred option, I will correct their phrasing if the community strongly swings one way or the other – people with diabetes, for example, tend to strongly prefer person-first language, while Deaf people tend to strongly prefer identity-first.

For me: I have a simple way to decide whether to use person-first or identity first on something: Does/did the thing affect who I am as a person enough that removing it from me now or in the past would significantly change who I am? If the answer is yes, I opt for identity first – thus, I identify as asthmatic and autistic. If the answer is no, I opt for person first – thus I’m also a person with allergies, myopia, astigmatism, and a GI disorder.

Note that, for me, opting for identity first doesn’t necessarily mean I’d turn down a cure if offered: I would not turn down an asthma cure. Nor does opting for person first mean I’d take an offered cure: My parents, who are well off, have offered to pay for Lasik surgery if I want, which would cure my vision issues. I have not taken it. All it means is that I think having the disorder has affected who I am.

That’s how I think about it. I’ll respect how you want to identify – please extend me the same courtesy.


10 thoughts on “Person-first vs identity-first.

  1. This is one of my favorite posts on the matter. It’s very open, respectful, and non-preachy. I think people should have the right to identify the way they want to, even if others consider it “incorrect”.

    • ischemgeek says:

      The only people I’m judgemental of in this debate are those who use ableist slurs (retard, spastic, etc) and those who try to ablesplain to those with disabilities how they should self-identify. How one identifies is a very personal issue, and I think everyone needs to come to the decision for themself.

  2. autisticook says:

    If only parents would say “I would prefer if you referred to my child in person-first language”. That sounds so completely different from “I want you to stop using identity-first language in general”. The first is personal preference, and until such a time where a child indicates their own choice on how to refer to themselves, I can respect that preference. The second? Um.

  3. ischemgeek says:

    Yes, exactly. Agreed.

  4. arkansasrose says:

    Thank you for this. I guess I’ve never thought about the issue as being that important but your blog has opened my eyes to how others feel about the topic.

    For me, “Person with a disability” is a little long-winded. “I’m disabled” is much faster and to the point. I’m also a red-head. I certainly don’t say “I’m a person with red-hair” I simply say “I’m red-headed”. My disability isn’t the end-all-be-all of who I am, just as my red hair doesn’t. But, I won’t deny, for me, it does define part of who I am.

    • Likewise, there’s at least in part, a convenience factor in how we refer to ourselves. So: depressive, dissociative, multiple, etc goes a longer way with us than: person with depression, person with a dissociative disorder/person with did, and so on. However, ADHDer and ADDer just irritates us to be used personally for self identification — for no good reason. There’s just something aesthetic about it that right now gets under our skin so we’re not really jumping to use it for ourselves. And no clue what to use for PTSD.

      That said, philosophically speaking, we’re pretty “identity-first.” While nothing is the be-all and end-all of who we are, we tend to take that as a given, and think in terms of how all of our identifications influence our experiences. In that regard, then it becomes very all-encompassing in a different way; there’s very few, if any contexts, in which we’re not in some way affected. Ultimately, they’re impossible to fully detangle and distinguish from any sense of “I” we have.

    • ischemgeek says:

      Different people identify differently, and I find it has a lot to do with the disability community in question. I’m not sure if it’s been studied or not, but something I’ve noticed is that disability communities that have historically been exposed to forced normalization (so, autism, visual impairment, hearing impairment, etc) tend to be strongly identity-first, while those that have historically been exposed to forced segregation (ID, chronic illness, and some mobility impairments) tend to be strongly person-first.

      People who’ve grown up being told, “It’s your job to look like everyone else, or else” tend to want to reclaim their disability identity in defiance, while those who’ve grown up being told, “You’re not like everyone else, you’re lesser and shall be kept separate,” tend to prefer to emphasize their personhood in their language. Both of these movements come from defiance at the bigoted status quo. I’m sure there are exceptions to the trend I’ve noticed, but none come to mind for me.

      What matters is that both camps have the same aim: To improve the quality of life of PWD and accessibility of society in general. And they’re both taking important action for it, I think, but the action that’s necessary differs based on the community and its history. Identity politics aren’t really a one-size-fits-all thing.

      And if you’re a don’t-care type, that’s okay, too. I won’t presume to lecture someone with a disability on how to identify with that disability. Your community, your disability, your identity, your decision.

  5. arkansasrose says:

    I meant to say “..just as my red hair isn’t”. I don’t know how to edit my responses.

    • ischemgeek says:

      I can edit it if you want – I generally don’t have editing enabled for comments because I find it makes for more clear conversation when you can see how something was originally written.

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