Identity-First vs. Person-First Language: Which one should I use?

Identity-First vs. Person-First Language: Which one should I use?

There has been a large debate over whether to use identity-first or person-first language when talking about someone with a disability. Before figuring out which one to use, it’s important to understand the difference between the two.

  • Identity-first: Putting the diagnosis first.
    Example: Autistic person
  • Person-first: Putting the person before their diagnosis.
    Example: Person with autism

Now, which one is correct? It really depends on who you’re talking to. In the disabled community, there are those who prefer identity-first and those who prefer person-first.

Many organizations choose to use person-first language, based on the reasoning that someone is a person first, and they also have a disability. This puts the individual at the forefront and their disability as one aspect of who they are.

According to the Special Olympics website, “Special Olympics prefers to focus on people—and to dispel negative attitudes—by using ‘people-first language’ that sees the individual, their gifts and their accomplishments rather than a diagnosis.”

Special Olympics Colorado Donor Relations Assistant and athlete, Jeff Steron prefers person-first language because he says he is more than his intellectual disability. “I believe in treating everyone equally,” Jeff explained. “When I talk to people with a disability, I talk to them the same way as everyone else.”

If someone were to refer to Jeff as an intellectually disabled person, he would explain to them why he prefers person-first language. “I would tell them what I’m capable of and tell them I have a full time job, I live independently, and I would tell them that I play golf with one arm,” said Jeff.

Jeff Steron
Special Olympics Colorado Athlete and Staff Member

Identity-first language is preferred by many because it recognizes, affirms, and validates an individual’s identity, as mentioned in a blog post written by Lydia Brown on the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. “We recognize the value and worth of that individual as an Autistic person — that being Autistic is not a condition absolutely irreconcilable with regarding people as inherently valuable and worth something,” says Brown. “Ultimately, we are accepting that the individual is different from non-Autistic people–and that that’s not a tragedy, and we are showing that we are not afraid or ashamed to recognize that difference.”

There are also people who prefer identity-first, because they believe that their disability is not something they should be ashamed of.

In an article for the Massachusetts Advocates for Children, Jevon Okundaye writes, “One reason I would say I am ‘an autistic man’ as opposed to ‘a man with autism’ is because I want to stand in solidarity with the autistic community, which favors identity-first language over person-first language and sees autism as an important part of who we are. Another reason is because I use identity-first language when talking about other parts of my identity, such as race, and I feel that my disability deserves the same treatment.”

In a survey done by the Organization for Autism Research, out of 1,072 respondents, 81.4% said they prefer identity-first language. Of the more than 800 self-advocates who completed the survey, 88.6% preferred identity-first language.

In conclusion, the best way to tell whether someone prefers identity-first or person-first is to ask them. It’s best to address someone in whatever way they feel most comfortable, and you shouldn’t wait until they correct you to start referring to them in their preferred way.

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