Why Person-First Language Doesn’t Always Put the Person First

Updated: Jul 7

By Emily Ladau

I vividly remember the first time I learned about person-first language (PFL). I was listening to a professor of special education speak to a group of students on disability “etiquette.” He handed out a sheet with rules on how to address or refer to a person if they had a disability. While lecturing, the professor seemed keen on calling me out, making me feel like a token, and prompting me to agree that when it came to disability, it was PFL or bust. I went along with it, but something didn’t sit well with me. I was born with my disability. It was news to me that calling myself a “disabled person” was an insult. It had always been just a fact of life, a part of who I was. And now, after all these years of calling myself what I am, here was an educator, who doesn’t even have a disability, telling me I had it all wrong.

At first, I shrugged it off, but I began encountering more and more people who proclaimed that PFL is the only way to show respect. So, I decided to dig deeper. And as I became more involved with a wider range of people from within the disability community, I discovered that PFL is not the only way.

There are two main types of language used to refer disability: person-first language and what is known as identity-first language (IFL). PFL as a concept originated among people who wanted to fight back against stigma. In a society that perceived disability as dehumanizing, advocates wanted those around them to remember that having a disability does not, in fact, lessen your personhood. As such, the PFL movement encouraged the use of phrases like “person with disability,” “girl with autism” or “boy who is deaf.” In speaking this way and putting the person first, it was considered a show of respect.

PFL was adopted as a general linguistic rule, moving from use by the people who initiated the movement towards heavy use by those in professional spheres. It essentially became the law of the land. Teachers, doctors, nurses, social service professionals, government officials… everyone was told that they should use only PFL. Using a term such as “disabled person?” A cardinal sin.

However, as with almost any major activism movement, PFL sparked a countermovement, known as identity-first. IFL is a linguistic concept embraced and actually preferred by countless people within the disability community. In the ideology of identity-first, “disabled” is a perfectly acceptable way for a person to identify. Instead of going out of your way to say “person with a disability,” when using IFL you would instead say “disabled person.” This is how I personally choose to identify myself. I am a disabled person.

And yet, non-disabled people largely tend to greet the idea of IFL with confusion or even anger, deeming it offensive to call someone disabled. I can’t even begin to tell you how many people I encounter who question my language choice. I realize I can’t blame them entirely, because PFL is all that many people know. It’s drilled into people’s minds, often in the form of generally well-intentioned sensitivity trainings and educational literature, as the only possible means to be respectful. But I just can’t get on board with this belief that person-first is the only way.

Consider how PFL intentionally separates a person from their disability. Although this supposedly acknowledges personhood, it also implies that “disability” or “disabled” are negative, derogatory words. In other words, disability is something society believes a person should try to dissociate from if they want to be considered a whole person. This makes it seem as though being disability is something of which you should be ashamed. PFL essentially buys into the stigma it claims to be fighting.

Also, would you ever make a point of describing someone by saying something like, for example, “a person who is Jewish” or “a person who is Asian?” Or would you just say “He’s Jewish,” or “She’s Asian?” My guess is you wouldn’t give descriptors like these a second thought. They’re not offensive words and there’s no implication of deficiency. They’re just facts about a person. Why isn’t disability treated in the same way? Disability is a state of being, a fact of life. It’s not a dirty word.

Furthermore, for so many people, “disabled” is so much more than a descriptor. It is an identity and culture unto itself. It is a source of pride. So, I am disabled. I am disabled just as much as I am a brown-haired, brown-eyed, glasses-wearing female. It is part of me. It is part of who I am.

I would be remiss if I didn’t note that IFL comes with its own set of “rules” that perhaps make it more difficult for people to fully embrace or accept.

Here’s a simple breakdown of IFL and how it’s used:

  • “Disability” and “disabled”