Monday, October 20, 2014

I Know I'm A Person. Thanks for the Reminder!: The Problem with Obligatory Person First Language

Growing up as a disabled person, I am keenly aware of the ongoing debate in the disability community about language. In fact, the sentence I’m about to type may cause a few people to cringe. I am disabled. Yep, I said it. And I’m not going to take it back. This phrase has caused many people over time to scold me that I am a person with disability. It’s not that I find the term people with disabilities offensive, but I do find its compulsory use to be. I tend to use these terms interchangeably, in fact. But the societal insistence on “person first” language has to stop. People have the right to identify as they choose. Period. Don’t tell me what to call myself. Your training, degree, and lengthy observations about “people like me” do not trump my insight about my own experience. In addition, the “person first” obligation as an unbreakable rule implies that unlike other identifying adjectives, disabled is inherently negative. Think about it. No one would judge me if I chose to say, “I am a woman” or “I am an American” because we have been raised to view these words with a neutral connotation. Disabled, on the other hand, because of the pity, fear, and misunderstanding surrounding our community, is ingrained in our collective mental lexicon with a built in negative connotation, an unspeakable adjective so assumed to be associated with misery that the people it describes have been stripped of their right to use it by people far outside our lived experience.
 I am not afraid to call myself disabled, because to me, there is no shame in using it. It doesn’t mean bad. It doesn’t mean ugly. It doesn’t mean all the unspoken undesirable things you’ve been taught. The logistics, discrimination, and social barriers living with my disability has come with are challenging, but they are part of the person I am and the person I will be. Disabled is just one of the things I am. I am not saying it is my entire definition, but it is part of my definition. Don’t tell me I would be the same person I am if it went away or never existed, because the people and experience it has given me have built me. They are not empty things without value. Not every single moment of a disabled life is profound, earth shattering, or worthy of a term paper. Sometimes, my moments are just regular, but they are mine. I would not be the same person had I never met my wonderful physical therapists and doctors. If I hadn’t been dragged to hours of physical therapy, some of my best friends may never have met me.
 I wouldn’t have my memories of summer camp, or know the feeling of the buzz of my wheelchair in motion through my feet. I would not be the same “me” that I am today, and when I think of all the people who would never have graced my path, picturing another reality seems so sad. When I think of the word disabled, I sometimes think of annoying things like surgeries and my braces getting too hot in the summer, but the good things outnumber the bad ones that come to mind. Certainly, when one of identifies as a woman, not everything associated with being one triggers happy, positive thoughts. Especially not when she is crying along with the particularly touching peanut butter commercial at a certain time of the month. But in identifying as a woman, she does not summon the political correctness police, who advise her that she is a PERSON and quickly correct her statement to “a person who identifies as a woman"while ensuring that their children did not hear the word “woman”.Of course, there are sexist assumptions about women, but no compulsory linguistic pressure to identify as a person first.

Then why are disabled people asked, even forced, to separate from their disabilities in everyday speech as if embracing them, or merely acknowledging them relegates us to a big, smelly pack of undesirables? My disability is part of me, and I refuse to treat it as something that must be overlooked in order for one to be seen as a person. My disability is infused in my person, not an ugly outgrowth that must remain next to my person.
To all the people who have argued with me not to call myself disabled because “I am a person first”, my answer is this. I know. Of course I am. Why would putting disabled in front of that negate my personhood? Just like every other human being’s, my personhood should be implied. If I say disabled, will you suddenly forget that I’m a person? If I have to emphasize my personhood every time I speak about myself, it doesn’t mean I am being “inclusive” and “correct”. It means that our language implies that without proper emphasis, my personhood is in doubt. Furthermore, if I am a “person first”, then so is everyone else. If the intent is really to honor and respect people, then theoretically, members of every group should be prancing around being sure that everyone knows he or she is, in fact, a person. If we really want to follow the person-centered logic, then where are the flyers about the “people who are gay” or “people who live in America”? It seems that other groups have been allowed to take their personhood for granted, and so “person first” language seems unnecessary and cumbersome. If the concept of personhood were so important, every demographic group would be organizing “a person pride parade” that could really be one giant parade because we’re all people, right? If personhood needed so much regular emphasis, we’d be hosting ally trainings for the family dog. The thing is, for most of us, society “just knows” that personhood is there. It only needs to be underlined and announced if it’s somehow in question. Perhaps we should be asking ourselves why the disability community has been so dehumanized that our personhood is required to be broadcast on a megaphone every time we talk about ourselves.

 Other groups do not have to send a constant reminder that they are people. Those completely outside of their demographic do not treat their adjectives as if they will make those they describe no longer sufficiently human. There is no insinuated stain attached to them, or a pressure to loudly and proudly announce one’s personhood before it disappears. I do not judge proponents of person first or seek to force identity first language on anyone who dislikes it. You can keep using people with disabilities if it makes you happy. That’s the beauty of choice. That’s what makes an identity. But please, do not tell me what I am, or act like my personhood will be obscured if it precedes the word person in a sentence or two. I am so confident that I am a person, not a puppy, a kitten, or a pig, that I will continue to treat my personhood as an assumed trait, always at my side, even if it is sometimes undeclared. Next time you remind me that I am a person first; I would like to say “Thanks. I thought so. What made you think otherwise?” and then remind him or her that she is a person too, in case there were any doubts.


  1. Not all women have 2 X chromosomes - make sure you don't deny intersection or trans*women when you put forward disabled people. Just as there's historically been an issue of throwing disabled people under the bus to promote other social issues, there's been one of throwing those who don't for the gender binary perfectly.

    But aside from that, I like your article. There are negative connotations with the adjective 'woman', though, for your point, we still aren't expected to identify as "a person who identifies as a woman". I guess there's just enough of us that even though were naturally inferior *rolls eyes* we can at least CLAIM personhood

  2. Hi! Thanks for your thoughts! Yes I agree, and I will edit my language to be more inclusive gender wise. But I agree also that there is no linguistic pressure to say "person who identifies as a woman". LOL. That would be something...

  3. For the love. Reading this made my heart explode and it took everything in me not to stand on my chair and pump my fist in the air. Everything you said is exactly why I wrote this post ( about my son and his disability being a defining part of his life (not the ONLY definition of who he is, but part of it? Absolutely.). Somehow, when we distance ourselves from these things (our disabilities, our gender, our race, etc) it implies that there is a shame attached to that aspect of our lives. There shouldn't be. I can call myself a brunette, a woman, a mother, a teacher, a Christian, all without fear that those labels will dehumanize me. Disability should be the same. It is not shaming or shamful. The way that we force ourselves or others to use "person-first" language makes me think of two things:
    1) The dehumanizing way that the disabled community has been treated for such a long time and the fact that we now feel the need to push for personhood because it has been denied in the past.
    2) The fact that perhaps we've bought into this a little too much. As if we need to say "I can {or my kid can} do great things even though I have a disability!" Why does it have to be "even though"? Some of the great things my kid does is BECAUSE he has a disability-- not in spite of it. It's why I don't like to say my son "happens to have" spina bifida. It's not a side note-- it's a big part of his life.

    This is the longest comment ever because I love this post. Thank you!! Sharing. STAT.

    1. Thank you Mary Evelyn!!!! I just love your blog too, especially that post. How lucky Simeon is to have a wonderful, forward thinking mom and dad. Hopefully with every passing year, the road will get smoother for disabled kids. Keep fighting the good fight. You rock. Disabled people are PEOPLE.... it starts with awareness. #proudperson LOL

  4. Thank you for sharing this post and letting people know that disable people are PEOPLE.

    Hats off to your spirit.

    Active For All