Person-First or Identity-First?

One of the very first things we learned when I was in my first semester of OTA school was to use “person-first” language rather than “identity-first” when referring to our patients.

We were told that to use “identity-first” (identifying a person by their disability first, as in “an autistic person”) was insensitive and demeaning to that person. They should be referred to using “person-first” (i.e: “a person with autism”), because they are first and foremost, a person. Seemed pretty straightforward. This has been drilled into the minds of practitioners everywhere. Sometimes to the point that if I would hear someone using identity-first language, I would cringe.

I’ve even made a conscious effort up to this point in my blogging career to use only person-first language, because it was the “right” way. However, I noticed more and more that the only people who actually use person-first language are people who work with people with disabilities. I started questioning myself and what I had learned. What language should I use when I write? Have I been offending people this whole time? It only made sense to ask people who are actually autistic/disabled what their thoughts were on the matter.

I reached out to professionals, parents, and adults with autism to get a general idea of which language was the “correct” one.

The answers were split into two groups. The first group consisted of people who preferred identity-first. Many stated that they see their disability as an integral part of who they are. The second group were people who believed that either is fine.

So which language do we use?

The best practice would probably be to ask the person you’re talking to which they prefer, and don’t overthink it.

As far as my writing goes, from now on I’ll be using both interchangeably.

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