A Discussion on Language
By Nathaniel Livernois
When describing my diagnosis, would it be better to say I am autistic or that I have autism? These two options are known as identity-first and person-first language. When using the former, it highlights one’s disability and relates it back to oneself. The latter acknowledges the person with disabilities before the disability itself. Both have slightly different approaches, but both are acceptable if whoever you are describing is okay with your choice of language.
Why should it be okay to accept either option? Let’s start with identity-first language. In the previously stated phrase “I am autistic,” the word “autistic” is a single word defining one personal trait. Calling myself an autistic person doesn’t make any assumptions about me as a whole, any more than calling myself a joyful man means that I can never be sad. The language only relates me to the diagnosis of autism. It says nothing about personality, physical traits, beliefs, relationships, or any other qualities that may belong to me. It only provides the basic information that I’m autistic.
When looking at person-first language, there are small differences from identity-first language. Using the phrase “I have autism,” as an example, the tone shifts away from the disability towards the speaker. Rather than defining a disability as a personally-defining quality, person-first language claims that disability is a trait over which one has ownership. By showing ownership, person-first language tries to emphasize the importance of the person over the disability. However, the end result is almost identical to identity-first language. Both approaches describe how disability relates to the individual, but they never reach beyond the disability’s definition.
There is, however, one form of language that does fail to define having a disability without reaching into other aspects of life. This would be the phrase “experiencing disability.” If I were to say that “I experience autism,” there would be a few problems here. The first being that an experience usually has a clear start and endpoint. Neither of those are visible here unless you want to include my birth and death, which most advocates probably aren’t thinking about when they use this phrase. Additionally, describing disability as an experience is not a common occurrence for temporary disabilities. At least anecdotally, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of someone “experiencing a broken leg.” Because an experience is temporary, it might be more appropriate to say that others experience my disability through me. My disability itself is not an experience. However, it does lead to plenty of life experiences.
Language is always tough to get right. What may be the right words to use in some company may be inappropriate in others. Although I have outlined both identity-first and person-first language as appropriate here, it is important to note that many people are only comfortable with one or the other.
Respect should always be at the front of every conversation.
Nathaniel Livernois is a 2022 SARTAC fellow at the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire.