Why Using People-First Language to Describe Disabled People Doesn’t Work
OK, I know that I tend to break the people-first language rule that some organizations for people with disabilities insist is necessary. I put “disabled” before “people.” People-first language demands that I use the words “person with” or “person who has” before I mention their condition. Doing this is supposed to focus attention on individuals and not their disabilities.
As a freelance writer covering news related to people with disabilities, I have monitored news articles on disability for several years now. Even though the concept of people-first language has been around since the late 1980s, the media, including myself, don’t use it.
As a result, I occasionally get email feedback from well-meaning people in the disability community who are proponents of people-first language, demanding that I use this style in the future. This issue provokes strong feelings both for and against this style in people with disabilities.
It is true that words are powerful and should be carefully considered before they are used to describe people. On the surface, people-first language seems appropriate, but does it really work? This concept has drawn a lot of criticism from some people within the disability community. Some disabled people feel that this way of identifying a disability is not only ineffective but can be harmful.
Reasons Why People-First Language Is Not Effective
Here are some reasons why some people with disabilities say that people-first language does not work, and why the media has not adopted the style.
Critics like the Dr. C. Edwan Vaughan of the National Federation of the Blind have pointed out that there is no evidence that people-first language is effective in changing public attitudes about disabilities. People who do not have disabilities often will react to descriptor words with their own prejudices and misconceptions, no matter where it appears in a sentence.
People-first language Is awkward and difficult to use
The constant use of phrases like “a person who has a mental illness” or a “person with autism” when writing or speaking about the disabled is cumbersome. Oft-repeated phrases are boring and tedious, as well as making articles too long. Using people-first language is also problematic for writers who are limited to a specific number of words in news articles.
Conversations using it are difficult
People-first language also makes people without disabilities self-conscious when trying to carry on a conversation. Speaking is difficult when the speaker has a persistent worry that words in common usage like “autistic” may be offensive. When they fail, they feel embarrassed and awkward.
People-First language can be dehumanizing
The philosophy behind people-first language is that it puts disabled people on an equal footing with non-disabled people, stop people viewing them based on a label, and emphasize that their disability is not the most important thing about them. One autistic man claimed in a blog that the opposite is true. He and others say that instead of taking the focus off of his condition, it makes his disability even more prominent when it is put at the end of an awkward phrase. People-first language also makes their disability a secondary characteristic rather than an active part of who they are.
Some critics say that that separating “person” and a phrase like “with a disability” is dehumanizing. People with disabilities, particularly those with autism, embrace their condition and terms like “autistic” as a part of their identity. Some disabled people are concerned because they feel that the emphasis on “person” devalues their disability, which in turn marginalizes and re-stigmatizes them.
Descriptors in common usage are discarded
People-first language eliminates several describer words such as "disabled" or "autistic" that have been accepted by people with disabilities. Not everyone embraces that idea. One man, for example, stated emphatically in a blog that he is not a “person with autism,” he is “autistic” or an “autistic person.” Autism is a part of who he is and he says he accepts it as a part of his identity as a person. Other people who have autism feel that the term "autistic" is an accurate way to describe their identity.
Person-first language is not universally accepted
A glance at the CDC websites and other disability-related sites gives the impression that people-first language is standard. This is not the case. One mother of a Down Syndrome child said in a blog that she encountered “language police” that corrected her like she was “12 years old.” She has decided to use people-first language but doesn’t correct others. What she really wants is for her Down Syndrome child to be accepted and treated with respect.
People-first language can create a moral dilemma with people asking: does one part of the disability community have the right to tell people with disabilities or their families how to describe themselves? Do they have the right to tell them that the words they are comfortable with such as “disabled” or “autistic” are wrong and insist everyone change their words?
"Identity-First" Language Vs "People-First" Language
A counter-movement has developed called "identity-first," which has been embraced by many in the disability community. Advocates say that putting their identity as a disabled person first is an acceptable way for people to identify themselves. They say separating person and their disability or using the term disabled actually insinuates that disability terms are negative and derogatory.
Some people get so caught up in correcting people’s language that they miss the point of what people first language is supposed to achieve – to fight stigma and to ensure that people with disabilities get the same treatment as everyone else.
When a person without a disability reads a descriptor such as “people with disabilities,” they will skip over the terms “people with” or "person who has." A word describing a disability may evoke negative images, misconceptions, and myths in the mind of the reader, whether the “person” words are there or not. Some people still look at disabled people as objects of pity, non-persons, and as being limited by their condition or intelligence.
What is truly needed here is a change in the public’s attitude towards people with disabilities, not fiddling around with words and policing their usage. While some progress has been made in reducing stigma and increasing knowledge of people with differences, individuals with disabilities, their families, advocates, and the media still need to continue to educate the public to treat the disabled as human beings.
As a writer, I don’t think that word order makes a difference in the way that people perceive individuals with disabilities. Ultimately, as copywriter Alex Kapitan states, it should be up to each individual with a disability to determine what language best describes their condition.
I wish that the people-first “language police” would take the effort they put into correcting other people and educate the public that disabled individuals deserve equality, fair treatment, respect, and opportunities for education and meaningful work just like everyone else.
© 2013 Carola Finch