What is person-first language and identity-first language?

Posted 1 month ago by Andrew Barbara
Share

Explains the difference between person first and identity first language.

Key points:

  • Understanding the types of language used by and for people with a disability or medical condition is important 
  • People with disability have their own preferences of the type of language used to describe them
  • Service providers, family members, friends, health professionals and all others offering support to people with disability can make a difference by understanding the types of language

There are two main types of language used by people with a disability or medical condition: person-first language and identity-first language.

Some people’s preferred terms are person-first language and other people prefer identity-first language.

If you work in the disability industry, support someone, are a friend, family member, colleague or even a neighbour of a person with disability it is important to understand the different types of language and the preferred terminology that person might have.

This is because understanding promotes inclusion and strengthens that person’s feeling of being accepted.

Person-first language

It’s no surprise that person-first language puts the person first. It focuses on the person before their disability and may be used to emphasise aspects of a person that are separate from their disability.

Examples of person-first language would be, ‘Annie has an intellectual disability’, ‘Michael is blind’ or ‘Steve lives with a spinal cord injury’.

A common saying that people who prefer person-first language use is that they want to show that ‘disability does not define them’ or that there is ‘more to a person than their disability’. This does not mean that people who prefer not to use person-first language are completely defined by their disability, just that they choose to talk about their disability differently.

Identity-first language

Identity-first language puts the disability identity before the person and is used to show that a person’s disability is a key part of their identity.

For example, someone might refer to themselves as a disabled person, rather than a person with disability.

Common reasons that people who prefer to use identity-first language may talk about in terms of their preference are:

  • That their disability is an important part of their identity
  • It is about disability pride and showing they are not ashamed of their disability
  • That they are reclaiming the word ‘disabled’ and making it their own
  • The term ‘disabled person’ recognises that a person is disabled by societal attitudes and inaccessible environments, not by their body or mind being different

Community language

There are also communities of people that use a more specific type of identity-first language to signify they are part of a cultural group or community of people.

Usually, this type of language will be signified by the use of capital letters to define the cultural group.

For example, people who identify as Deaf, with a capital ‘D’, are part of the Deaf community.

A person who is hard of hearing can identify as Deaf if they feel they belong to the cultural group and a person who is deaf may also not identify as Deaf if they don’t feel connected to the Deaf community.

Similarly, people who identify as part of the Autistic community, or autism community, often refer to themselves as Autistic individuals rather than a person with autism because they see autism as an integral part of their identity.

How to use the language

You should use the preferred language of the people you are talking to, and if you don’t know the language a person would like to use you should ask politely about their preference.

If you are unable to ask it is acceptable in most cases to default to person-first language until you are able to find out the person’s preference.

Many Government and non-government organisations use person-first language to refer to people with disability, where there is more than one person referenced, because it does not focus on a person’s diagnosis.

However, if it is not important to talk about a person’s disability you might not need to use either person-first or identity-first language and can just refer to them by their name.

For example, if you see a friend in the street you wouldn’t say, ‘How are you going Tim who has multiple sclerosis?’ You would just ask Tim how he was doing.

It is also suggested by disability advocates and representative groups to not use terms such as ‘differently abled’ or ‘special needs’ because these are not accepted by many people with disability and are considered ableist and condescending.

The word ‘suffer’ should never be used in any form when relating to a person with disability. Phrases like ‘suffers from’ or ‘suffering from’ are always offensive as they demean the person and refer to them in a negative way.

What else would you like to know about disability-related language? Tell us in the comments below and subscribe to the Talking Disability newsletter.

Related content:

Open or supported employment – what’s the difference?

Personal information a disability service provider may ask for