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Disabled vs disability. Which is right?

November 23, 2016

Disabled person vs person with a disability. Autistic person vs person with autism. They may sound similar, but these terms can actually be very different from one another.

Up until quite recently, language such as ‘disabled person’ was still widely used across Australia. These days, we’ve seen a shift in the way we talk about disability, with terms such as ‘person with a disability’ used instead.

This new way of speaking is called ‘person-first language’, and replaces the older style ‘identity-first language’ – but what’s the difference and why the change?

In a nutshell, person-first language is where the person comes before the disability such as a ‘person with a disability’ or ‘person with autism’.

And identity-first language is where the disability comes before the person such as ‘disabled person’ or ‘autistic person’.

While most organisations only use person-first language, some people with a disability still prefer to use identity-first language themselves.

So let’s take a look at both sides of the argument below.

The person-first argument

“It’s about seeing me as a person, not seeing my disability.”

The idea behind person-first language is that it puts the person first – it’s about seeing the person, not the disability.

If you use disability as a descriptor (‘deaf person’, ‘autistic person’), it places emphasis on the disability. However, many people feel that having a disability doesn’t define or describe them in anyway. They are just like everyone else, they just happen to have a disability.

“I always prefer person-first language because my disability isn’t a huge part of me, it’s secondary to who I am,” explains a House with No Steps customer.

“There’s much more to me than my disability.”

People with a disability are parents, siblings, friends, co-workers or neighbours. They may be sporty, sensitive, smart, self-deprecating, or have a goofy sense of humour.

A disability is not the sole factor that defines a person, it’s just one part of the picture. People all have individual strengths, skills, interests, likes, and dislikes – things that have nothing to do with their disability!

Whatever the case, we are all complex and interesting people, and that’s what person-first language reminds us about.

A House with No Steps customer explains, “When it comes down to it, I would much prefer to be known as the ‘cool, quirky girl who loves vintage dresses’ rather than the ‘disabled girl’. But if you must describe me and my disability, I am a ‘person with a disability’ any day.”

The identity-first argument

“My disability is not a negative or something to be ashamed of.”

Some people think that language such as ‘person with autism’ or ‘person with a disability’ turns disability into something negative, something that needs to be tucked away at the end of a sentence.

Instead, they see ‘autistic person’ or ‘disabled person’ as terms which embrace and celebrate their disability – and who it makes them.

Prominent autism-rights activist Jim Sinclair writes, “Saying ‘person with autism’ suggests that autism is something bad – so bad that is isn’t even consistent with being a person. Nobody objects to using adjectives to refer to characteristics of a person that are considered positive or neutral.”

“We talk about athletic or musical people, not about ‘people with athleticism’ or ‘people with musicality.’ It is only when someone has decided that the characteristic being referred to is negative that suddenly people want to separate it from the person.”

“I am my disability, it is part of me.”

People also believe that ‘person with autism’ or ‘person with a disability’ implies that the disability can (or should) be separated from the person.

In fact for many people with a disability, they feel their disability is integrated into who they are – and their disability cannot be separated from their identity, nor do they want it to be.

Jim Sinclair says, “Saying ‘person with autism’ suggests that the autism can be separated from the person. But this is not the case. Autism is part of me. Autism is hard-wired into the ways my brain works. I am autistic because I cannot be separated from how my brain works.”

Also in the words of the late Stella Young: “I’ve never had to say that I’m a person who’s a woman, or a person who is Australian, or a person who knits. Somehow, we’re supposed to buy this notion that if we use the term ‘disabled’ too much, it might strip us of our personhood.”

“Person-first language can be clunky and awkward.”

Fans of identity-first language feel it is less awkward, repetitive, and makes for smoother communication. They see terms such as ‘person with a disability’ as trickier to weave into conversation, and therefore more cumbersome.

Australians love to shorten our words whenever we can – barbie, arvo, Maccas, cuppa, footy, biccy, the list goes on. However, person-first language does the opposite – and for some this can feel unnatural, forced, and ‘too PC’.

So what’s the verdict?

In Australia, person-first language is the most widely accepted approach, and one House with No Steps uses in all our communications.

That said, it’s personal and there are no hard and fast rules. Ultimately the best way to address someone is always using their name – and if you’re not sure how they’d like to be referred to otherwise, you can always politely ask!

But, when in doubt, we suggest you default to person-first language.

It (hopefully) goes without saying that hurtful or derogatory terms like ‘retard’ and ‘spastic’ should always be avoided. In our view this is not being overly politically correct, this is just showing people respect.

And for a quick overview of acceptable words and phrases, check out our handy disability language reference guide here.

Do you prefer person-first or identity first language? We’d love to hear from you – just write your comment below or drop us a line.