Person First Language and Identity First Language
This is the second part of a two-part series on disability language. Read the first part here.
About 120,000 children and adolescents (aged seven to 18) in Singapore have a disability. Disabilities can affect young people in different ways, even when a child has a similar type of disability as another child.
Person First Language
Person first language is a manner of addressing individuals with disabilities respectfully and appropriately. It focuses on the person instead of the disability. The principle of person first language is arranging what we say so that the person and not the person’s diagnosis or disability comes first. For example, we use the phrases “a person who is/with/has…” when referring to an individual with a disability. Here is a list of examples of person first language.
|Person with a disability||Disabled, handicapped|
|Person with intellectual disability||Mentally retarded|
|Person with autism||Autistic|
|Person with dyslexia||Dyslexic|
|Person with Down’s Syndrome||Down’s, Mongoloid|
|Person who is blind||Blind person|
|Person who is deaf||Deaf person|
|Person who is hard of hearing||Hearing impaired|
|Person who has a communication disorder||Mute, dumb|
|Person with a physical disability||Crippled, invalid|
Person first language originally developed as a movement to fight back against stigma. It is practised by professionals such as teachers, doctors, and those in the social service spheres and by laymen alike. It is, however, not the only type of language used to refer to disability.
Identity First Language
Identity first language is a concept embraced by individuals within the disability community. Referring to the person with the disability as “autistic, dyslexic, or disabled” is acceptable and preferred by certain people with the actual condition. For them, their condition is a state of being. It does not need to be used as a descriptor as it is their identity. It is part of them and who they are. One may encounter a young adult with autism who prefer to call himself or herself ‘autistic’ because for that person, autism is a facet of his or her identity and nothing to be ashamed of. Since it is a neurological, developmental condition, it is a meaningful component of who he or she is.
Being enlightened with both types of language applied to individuals with disabilities gives us a wider picture of the entire disability movement. Through this, we achieve a sense of balance. As we notice, the two kinds have certain contradictions. How do we navigate then?
The key is to ask. If the person prefers person first language, use it to refer to that individual. If the person prefers identity first, refer to him or her with identity first language. If there is no preference, you can switch back and forth to acknowledge both. It is important to value the actual person’s voice and feelings. If the person has no capacity to express how he or she wants to be referred to, ask the person’s loved ones. In the end, the focus is still on the person, and not on our preference.
Ministry of Social and Family Development (2017, February 6). Number and profile of persons with disabilities. Retrieved from https://www.msf.gov.sg/media-room/Pages/Number-and-profile-of-persons-with-disabilities.aspx