Identity-first language uses the name of a person’s disability as an adjective – for example, ‘blind person’ as opposed to person-first language that leads with the individual first.
Identity-first language – meaning and explanation
Identity-first language is language that places a person’s disability before the person, as part of their identity. Some people consider their disability to be a fundamental part of their identity, and therefore prefer to use identity-first language.
For example, rather than leading with the person first, as in “person with autism” , identity-first language puts the diagnosis first, as in “autistic person”.
The difference between person-first and identity-first language
Contrary to identity-first language, person-first language puts the person before their disability.
Typical examples of person-first language are “person who is blind” and “person who is disabled”.
Person-first language has been around since the early 70s. It was coined in Sweden by the People First movement and spread to other parts of the world as the organization grew internationally. The concept is to emphasize an individual’s identity beyond their diagnosis, which often can lead to discrimination and ableism.
At the same time, there are many people with disabilities who prefer to use identity-first language as a way of incorporating their disability into their identity. This is quite the opposite of person-first language. Part of the disability community has rejected this form of language, claiming it puts the focus of a person’s identity on their disability, which is considered to be reductive and unrepresentative.
Identity-first language is more frequently used by people in the Autism, Blind and Deaf communities. That said, these communities are large and diverse. While some people in the Autism community feel that identity-first language creates a culture around neurodiversity that is respectful and helps convey a deeper understanding of autism, others are against it.
There’s no right or wrong when it comes to using these languages. Both forms are equally appropriate but should be applied in accordance with the preferences of the person you are addressing. When in doubt, always ask.
Examples of identity-first-language
Identity-first language is a linguistic choice that prioritizes a disabled person’s self-identification, acknowledging and respecting the right to define oneself. By placing the person’s disability first, it recognizes that this is an integral part of their identity, rather than something separate or incidental.
Here are some examples of identity-first language:
- Disabled person instead of person with disability
- Autistic person instead of person with autism
- Deaf person instead of person with hearing impairment
- Blind person instead of person with visual impairment
- Little person (or dwarf) instead of person who has dwarfism
Identity-first language applied in other contexts
The general discussion about identity-first language often revolves around people with medical or mental health disabilities.
However, there are areas in which it is considered better to avoid identity-first language, due to the risk of stigmatization and overgeneralization.
One example is when referring to a person as an alcoholic or addict. Other terms, such as ‘epileptic’ and ‘schizophrenic’ are also widely avoided in favor of “person with schizophrenia” or “person with epilepsy”.
Still, identity-first language may still be preferred by individuals who consider their condition to be an inseparable part of their identity, comparing it to being no different than referring to someone’s ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.
Here are some examples:
- African-American, Latin-American, Native American
- Christian, Jewish, Muslim
- Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Queer, Transgender, Non-Binary
Identity-first language as a vehicle for inclusion
The goal of identity-first language is to avoid language that discriminates, stigmatizes or in other ways dehumanize people. Whether it’s better to use person-first language or identity-first language is a tough question because it depends solely on the preference of the person being referred to.
Here are some best practice strategies:
- In general, when referring to people with mental health disorders, it is better to use person-first language instead of identity-first language. Examples: “person with bipolar disorder” instead of “bipolar person” and “person with schizophrenia” instead of “schizophrenic person”.
- Always ask the person you are referring to what they prefer. Even though they may belong to a community that typically prefers identity-first language, it is not safe to assume that it applies to every individual within that community.
- It is important to avoid stereotypes and generalizations. Treat each person as an individual and avoid making assumptions about their identity. Beyond identity-first language, use inclusive language in all aspects of communication.
- Open and respectful communication is key to ensuring that we value and respect each person’s right to self-expression and identity, fostering a more inclusive environment for all.