The power of identity-first language

Handicapped. Differently abled. Physically challenged. Chances are if you are a disabled person, or you’re paying attention to terminology, you’ve heard all these phrases.

These are euphemisms invented by nondisabled people with the goal of “cushioning” disabled people “from the cruelty of language,” according to writer and activist Eli Clare.

This is a conversation that has been gaining steam in Canada over the last 10 to 15 years among disability activism groups.

The use of the term “disabled people” instead of the person-first term “person with a disability,” centres their disability as an important part of a person’s identity rather than something they have and must overcome.

The idea a person’s disability is something they must overcome and live their life in spite of is evocative of what disability activist Stella Young calls “inspiration porn.”

According to Young, inspiration porn uses images of disabled people going about their daily lives to help non-disabled people “put their worries into perspective.” A disabled person existing in the world and going about their daily life should not be seen as inspirational.

A person’s disability intersects with every other aspect of their life. Placing the person first in language separates the person from the experience of disability, according to identity-first language advocates.

Using language that separates a person from their disability by actively putting their personhood before their diagnosis reinforces the notion of disability as a negative aspect of identity.

Julia Métraux is a disabled journalist in Canada who believes Canadian media needs to get better at understanding preference when it comes to language. Métraux argues that whether it be identity-first or person-first language, a disabled person should have final say in how they are addressed.

The use of person-first language is still the norm for the majority of national organizations. Across Canada, organizations such as Inclusion Canada or People First of Canada use the term “people with disabilities.”

However, the favouritism towards person-first language is not only something used by the larger nation-wide organizations. This language is also utilized more locally in the City of Oshawa’s inclusive language manual.

The manual put out by the City of Oshawa in March of 2019 puts the focus on ability when it comes to language. The manual says “consider people first, the disability second. Do not refer to disability unless it is crucial to your subject.”

The inclusive language manual also advocates for an understanding that disabled people are not their diagnosis. However, many disabled people argue that their disability is not a bad word that should be avoided.

The person-first language used widely by national organizations has its roots in the 1960’s disability civil rights movement. This was a time when disabled people had to fight for their personhood to be recognized and valued.

But language is ever-evolving.

Person-first language was used at a critical point in the history of disability civil rights: a time when being disabled was highly stigmatized and institutionalized.

If society wants to be as accepting as it claims it does, then it is time to look to disabled people when choosing language to reference them. The group in question should be the group that sets the precedent for how they want to be described.

Language has power. So does diluting your choice of words with euphemism. By not shying away from identity-first language, disability becomes a strong part of a person’s identity.

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