I speak English. You speak English. But the English we speak is not the same as our grandparents spoke. The English your grandparents spoke was not the same as was spoken in the 1800s. Language, like people, changes over time.
In the 1960s and 1970s, people used different words than we do today. Some of these words we think of as mean. ‘Retarded’, ‘Crippled’, and ‘deaf and dumb’ were all common once. Over time, people saw how hurtful these words were. Then they stopped using those words.
In the 1990s, some people had a new idea they called ‘person-first’ language. It means you always talk about people before you talk about their disability. So, instead of saying someone is:
- blind, you say they have vision loss;
- physically disabled, you say they use a wheelchair;
- autistic, you say they have autism
In the past few years, some disability rights activists have been saying they do not like person-first language. For a number of reasons, they like identity-first language, phrases such as:
- autistic person
- blind person
- wheelchair user
They say there is nothing wrong with being disabled. I, as a disabled person, agree with them. The people and culture around us have said being disabled is bad. It is other people, who are not disabled, that said disabled people were not human beings. Some people say talking about the person first reminds everyone we are people. Disabled people know we are people. We do not need to be reminded.
There is another problem with person-first language. It says people and their disability can be separate. If you have something, then you can one day not have it. But a disability is not like a broken leg. It cannot be cured. For the vast majority of disabilities, people just learn to live with them. As Ari Ne’eman, president and founder of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network once said, ‘When I go on a trip, and the airline loses my luggage, I still arrive with my autism.’
Lydia Brown, who proudly identifies as autistic, has written about this in great detail. Her article gives links to different people’s thoughts from around the web. It talks only about autism. But, it is not just the autism community that this is happening in. Other disability communities are also talking about identity-first language.