Language Disabled

I call myself disabled.  But Angie, you may be thinking, isn’t it person with disabilities? And the short answer is, yes, both can be correct.

Girl with Down Syndrome

Person-first language (people with disabilities) arose in recognition of prevailing ableism, and of the power of language to shape thought. Other similar language shifts occurred around the same time, including the shift from “workman’s” to “worker’s” compensation.  The goal was to humanize disabled people by putting the word person at the front of the phrase.

Identity-first language (disabled people) arose in recognition that disabilities can be an important part of someone’s identity,  and that disabilities are integral, not easily removable aspects of selves. Identity-first language proponents joke, “I don’t need to be reminded I’m a person.”

Different communities have different general preferences.  The Down Syndrome community prefers “people with Down Syndrome” while much of the autistic community prefers “autistic people” over “people with autism”. Beyond that, individuals have their own preferences too. If you don’t know what an individual wants, it’s usually safest to go with the community standard for a certain disability. 

My preference, for talking about myself or talking about us as a group, is to say disabled people. I feel this is less cumbersome language,  and I feel like it is more how I talk in general.  I call myself a lesbian, not a person with womanhood and homosexuality. I call myself white and short, not a person with paleness or person with shortness. At the same time, if you call me a person with disabilities it won’t bother me. (This doesn’t mean anyone else will be or should be as unbothered.)

I also think identity-first language fits in with the social model of disability.  I am disabled, as a verb not just an adjective.  My impairments become disabling when they are not accommodated or treated properly, when they are used as justification to exclude me from public life.

Both PFL and IFL are better than the alternatives I’ve seen: handicapable, differently abled, and “the disabled”. The first two deny disabilities and in the process make accommodation and treatment harder to access.  The third shifts disabled from being an adjective or verb to being a noun, elimimating the word “people” entirely. This linguistic trick is used for maligned groups generally – the poor, the elderly, the homeless.

My advice is don’t erase disability or people,  whether you prefer identity-first or person-first language.  Respect individuals and groups and don’t argue with a disabled person (/person with disabilities) about how they should speak of their own condition.

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