If you work in the social sciences, you have probably heard of a person’s first language. It is often encouraged that this type of language is used the majority of the time. In fact, it has been so ingrained in me, and still is encouraged in my master’s degree, that it is my default way of talking. I must consciously think to use identity first instead of person first. However, recently I have seen several people speaking out that when talking about those living with disabilities, identity first is the more desired option for them. Before we get ahead of ourselves though, what is a person’s first language? Person first language is when you put the descriptor word behind the person linguistically. For example, saying “they are living with bipolar disorder” is person first language as it emphasizes the personhood first. In contrast, “she is bipolar” would be identity first language as it emphasizes the label of the person.
Person first language helps remove the descriptive word from the person, they become someone “with that” instead of someone “who is that”. When referring to someone who wants their disability or diagnosis to be detached from who they are, this language is important. However, one thing that a person’s first language sometimes implies is that the descriptor word is a negative aspect and therefore it should be detached from the person’s identity. When speaking about someone who is blind, they might want to be referred to as a blind person because it is part of their identity and is not viewed as a negative trait that they want to remove from their identity.
Now, I think it is safe to say that a person’s first language is still the most appropriate choice when not knowing what someone prefers. Sometimes people may use identity first labels for themselves, and it may create a negativity towards themselves, like someone calling themselves an alcoholic. Using this term may be a way that they are putting themselves down by using identity first language, shifting to using “I am coping with alcohol” or another person’s first option, may help see themselves without a confining descriptor, they are more than just someone who struggles with alcohol use. Whereas someone might want to have autistic as an identity first label because it empowers them, and they see being autistic as a positive part of themselves to be emphasized. When it comes to using labels or identity first language, I think it is important to first make sure that it is the way they want to be referred to. Asking might seem like an uncomfortable question, but for a lot of people asking how you want to be referred to is a question that can make an inclusive and comfortable environment.
I always encourage people to listen to the voices of those in non-dominant communities so I want to provide two resources for hearing the perspectives on using identity first language from a disabled woman (https://thebodyisnotanapology.com/magazine/i-am-disabled-on-identity-first-versus-people-first-language/) and an autistic woman (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RyJ7AgOKUlg). The latter video also includes content on functioning labels and the term Asperger’s, which I think are both important topics to be educated on.