Person-first language and oppositional models of disability

While person-first language—a way of framing disability rhetorically based on the idea that people should not be solely defined by their disability—may apply to people who experienced disablement later in life, or don’t view their disability as a pervasive part of their being, it is not a universal experience of conceptualising disability. 

I question the idea that person-first language is inherently inclusive toward all communities to which it is attached. In fact, when it is misapplied, it verges on being ableist itself. 

For some disabilities, and for some disabled people, person-first language treats disability as though it is something that exists alongside someone; it is an oppositional model in which one’s disability is a burdensome external force. This oppositional attitude toward disability stems from the ableist idea that disability is something that happens to “normal” people—or that disabled people are altered able-bodied or neurotypical people—rather than a natural aspect of human existence. This applies particularly to those of us who have lifelong disabilities—we cannot envisage a life in which we were not disabled relative to the societies in which we grew up. Using person-first language for those of us who do see our disabilities as being an intrinsic aspect of our being simply upholds toxic cultural scripts regarding disability, shame, and the idea that we should reject our bodies and minds—or somehow see them as not being truly ours—for not adhering to a socially sanctioned norm. 

I do understand that people who apply person-first language universally are well-meaning and wish to recognise that we have full value as human beings. Affirming our value, however, does not necessitate separating us from our disabilities if we do not prefer that language, especially when that separation is artificial. 

For me to call myself a person with autism is to create an artificial distinction between me and the autism that helps shape who I am. I do not exist in opposition to myself. You cannot rend me in two, with me on one side and the autism on the other. 

Recasting me as a person with autism constitutes rewriting my existence and cramming it into an ill-fitting mould that valorises the experiences of non-autistic people over autistic people’s experiences, and pushes me aside to the margins.

Am I a person with blackness? A person with queerness? No, of course not, and even the most diehard supporters of person-first language would not contort themselves to separate all marginalised identities from people who are rendered as subalterns within mainstream society. 

Were I not autistic, I would not be myself in any recognisable form, so why would I separate myself from being autistic? I am an autistic person. Do not call me a “person with autism.” 

2 thoughts on “Person-first language and oppositional models of disability

  1. “This oppositional attitude toward disability stems from the ableist idea that disability is something that happens to “normal” people—or that disabled people are altered able-bodied or neurotypical people—rather than a natural aspect of human existence. This applies particularly to those of us who have lifelong disabilities—we cannot envisage a life in which we were not disabled relative to the societies in which we grew up. ”

    THAT.

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