What is Identity-first Language?

To understand identity-first language (IFL) we must also tell the story of person-first language (PFL) as their histories are inextricable. Their origins span 250 years of the history of Western thought, but we can pick the story up in the early 20th century.

Note: Discusses offensive historical terms for disabled people.

First, some definitions. Person-first language means describing individuals and groups as people first, followed by a descriptor – ‘person of colour’ or ‘people with disabilities’ – so you are reminded these are people, not something abstract. The idea is that word order matters, using ‘of’ or ‘with’ or ‘has’ places the person first, and separate from, the descriptor.

Identity-first language arose as a counter-argument by several groups for whom community identity was central to their sense of self. It takes personhood as a given and signals the descriptor is relevant and important to the context – ‘French person’ feels right, ‘person of French nationality’ just does not. It is also shorter and easier to say. IFL has therefore remained commonplace – Black woman, Transgender teen, Blind adults, Deaf community, Disabled student, Gay man, Autistic person.

The key arguments in favour of Identity First Language are:

  • My identity is not something trivial or shameful.
  • If you forgot I’m human, the problem is within you, not the words.
  • Each person has the right to define how they are described.

Person-first language was initially proposed in the late 1950s as a respectful way to describe disabled people. It was inspired by a line of thinking from early 20th century linguistics we call the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

Identity-first-language means that you see disability as one part of the person. Person first language: See the person not the disability. IFL is preferred by Autistics

This suggested that thought is language-based, words shape how people think, and so changing language changes how people think and act. The problem with Sapir-Whorf was that it seemed plausible but remained untested.

By 1975, some academics were actively campaigning for PFL. Their goal was to replace depersonalising or negative terms like ‘polio victim,’ ‘wheelchair-bound,’ ‘the disabled’ or ‘cripple’ with more acceptable terms like ‘persons with disability.’ In 1984 the first formal PFL guidelines were published in the USA, followed by a flurry of others. Unfortunately the results were awkward mouthfuls – ‘people who have a vision impairment,’ ‘persons living with a physical disability,’ ‘person who uses a wheelchair.’ PFL also includes a ‘no normal’ rule generating things like ‘persons without a paraplegia involvement’ and ‘children developing without mental retardation.’

Writers and speakers struggled, and often bypassed the rules to just remain intelligible. It looks great in a style guide, but produces cumbersome, unnatural results.

PFL resulted from therapists and academics guessing what kind of language might or might not be disabling. That they forgot to ask disabled people suggests where the real problem lay. Worse, nobody had yet checked if PFL or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis were even valid ideas.

Then, in 1986, Jeanne Patterson and Barbara Witten conducted a study comparing how ‘disabling’ and ‘non-disabling’ language affected attitudes to disabled people. It turns out there was no real difference. Oops. Multiple studies have confirmed this finding, or shown that PFL actually creates a negative impression.

But it was already too late. Style guides telling professionals how they had to write about disability were already in use. By the 1990s journals were rejecting papers unless they were worded ‘appropriately’ and textbooks taught students how they ‘had to’ refer to disabled people.

Those students graduated, encountered disabled people and the parents of disabled children, and told them they also ‘had to’ use PFL. The simplistic “don’t let your disability define you” argument appeared, and we’ve not heard the end of it.

Many disability rights activists initially embraced PFL.

Some groups with a distinct culture and community did not, such as the Autistic, Blind, and Deaf communities. They asserted their right to self-define, and were largely ignored, especially the still-developing 1990s Autistic community. This is where the idea of identity-first language was born, based on three principles:

Disability is a fundamental part of my identity
Disability is neither shameful nor a failure
Disabled people are full humans entitled to equal rights

It has been argued that IFL tries to use the same ‘language changes thinking’ approach as PFL. Actually, it is much more about defining a core aspect of the person. We say Japanese woman, geeky cousin, sporty kid, musical family, but don’t assume this defines the entirety of a person’s nature, just that in certain contexts they are relevant and come to the fore.

All humans are a mix of identities. Some soak into the very fabric of our lives, others shape only parts. Together, they define us. Even aspects of ourselves we don’t regard as ‘identity’ can play enriching roles in our lives – a reason to live, a source of joy, sorrows, or wisdom to share with others.

This is why IFL captures far more than PFL ever could. It is how we define ourselves by what matters to us and reach out to make connections. That we are human is a given. PFL, by contrast, is designed by others, for others, and describes only to segregate.

Of course, all of this lies in the hands of the individual. Some disability communities continue to choose PFL. However, more than 95% of English-speaking Autistic adults choose IFL, and we expect others to honour that as a mark of respect. And here’s the cool bit – IFL includes PFL. You can identify as a person with autism, as on the spectrum, as an autie, a spectrumite, an autist, as neurodivergent or autistic… or just as human. As with all personal identities, we honour and respect that choice, because that is what you do when you presume competence, respect autonomy, and accept all humans as equals.

Thanks to Stiof MacAmhalghaidh (MAQQI) for writing this article explaining this in a detailed but accessible manner as always.

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