The Case for Identity-first

[Note: this post is specifically in regard to the autism community.]

“You are required to use person-first in this class. Otherwise, it will affect your grade.”

 

I am autistic, not a person with autism.

I don’t “live with” or “suffer from” autism.

Autism isn’t a roommate that eats all the leftovers from my fridge, or a cursed plague rained down upon me from the sky. It’s not a death sentence, a condemnation to a life of loneliness and disastrous consequences.

The only thing I’m “suffering from” is the lack of acceptance and respect.

Autistic isn’t a bad word.

It’s an operating system, a lens from which I experience the world around me. It’s how I enjoy each moment, embracing my own existence in a way that many others do not. It’s not a disease, no matter what anyone says.

Neurodiversity is necessary in this world, and autistic people are not less for being themselves. All of us have value – the happy flappers, those who use AAC, those of us who can hardly remember to feed ourselves half the time (shout out to my schedule chart and phone reminders). Our lives might look a little different than yours, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less meaningful. Being autistic means I can be lost in the same musical pattern for hours. It means feeling joy so intensely that all I can do is flap my hands because the excitement over seeing a butterfly is just far too much to contain inside.

Sure, being autistic means shirt tags that feel like cacti pricks. It means intense fluorescent lighting, a rush of voices in the room that leaves your head swimming. The constant desire to know where my limbs are for grounding, the need for a human guidebook. It means feeling like an alien in a world that isn’t quite suited for my functioning needs. It means that I’m not really supposed to live on my own, that friends and others check on me regularly to make sure that I’m eating and looking after myself.

That doesn’t make me any less. Instead, it makes up my existence. Living in itself is full of positives and negatives; being autistic is the same.

We exist in our own way, and we deserve to exist.

If you need person-first language to remind you that I am a living, breathing human-being, we have an issue.  By enforcing the use of person-first, you immediately make the assumption that my disability makes me less – and something that you have to separate me from in order to have any worth in your eyes. You imply that I am broken, but you’ll try to make up for it by calling me a person first. At the same time, you completely contradict my entire identity and tell me that my voice does not matter.

Working with children with disabilities in the future, my kids will not learn this.

My future kids are going to be loved. They’re going to learn that their disabilities make them unique, a beautiful boost to the natural diversity of humanity. They will learn that they are full of value – not despite their disabilities – but with the inclusion of them. I will teach them that their differences are needed in the world. In my home, office, or wherever I work some day, they will never need to feel ashamed of their existence.

In the community center I volunteer in, I take the same stance. Every single autistic child that enters that building is a precious soul who needs to be cared for and shown how important they truly are. The same applies for teens and adults, too. They are facing obstacles at every point of their lives, and we are all surviving in a world that doesn’t really take us into consideration.

In the meantime, I still have things to do.

It would appear that my opinion as a disabled person is not always valued – especially in this area of study. It’s ironic how something so nice-sounding is actually incredibly dehumanizing. I have to be honest, the requirement made me feel medicalized and as if my community doesn’t actually matter.

It makes me feel like only the “professionals” get a say, instead of the people I am meant to serve in the future. I’m struggling through college for a reason: to help future disabled children and adults to take pride in who they are and love themselves. Part of that requires to respect their community’s wishes and their disabilities. If we teach our children that they have to be separated from their disability, doesn’t that further the stigmatization? Being a good advocate requires nurturing our kids, not to make them feel negatively about their existence.

It made me feel humiliated when the class was asked to explain why “an autistic person” is obviously wrong – immediately after I had mustered up the courage to speak up and say we prefer that. I cried after I left, because I felt disrespected and my experience as being a part of the autistic community didn’t count. It was as if my autistic voice didn’t matter, and conveyed the constant, overwhelming societal routine of ‘shut up, we know what’s best for you.’ It reminded me of all the times I was told I was broken and the world doesn’t think my words have any value. Of course, the professor meant well – person-first has been pushed on people for years. 

I sent the professor several links to studies, articles, and stances to back up my feelings. The next class, he actually took the time to explain to the class how there is a movement for using identity-first. The fact that he listened absolutely astonished me, and he’s been a fantastic professor all semester.

Still, we have a long way to go.

Most people are rarely as understanding as my professor was.

We fight so hard to be accepted and to be able to exist in the world. When autistics speak, few actually seem to listen.

If my voice isn’t good enough, maybe some of the following voices are:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5545113/ : ‘The use of person-first language in scholarly writing may accentuate stigma’

https://www.thinkinclusive.us/why-person-first-language-doesnt-always-put-the-person-first/ : ‘Why Person-First Language Doesn’t Always Put the Person First’

https://autismwomensnetwork.org/failings-person-first-language/ – ‘The Failings of Person First Language’

http://www.autism.org.uk/about/what-is/describing.aspx – A link that describes studies and information.

https://musingsofanaspie.com/2014/06/18/the-logical-fallacy-of-person-first-language/ : ‘The Logical Fallacy of Person-First Language’

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3519177/ – ‘Person-first language: Noble intent but to what effect?’

http://aspitude.blogspot.com/2009/03/autism-first-language.html – ‘Autism-first Language’

http://doodlebeth.com/identity-first-language/ – A very informative comic

https://twitter.com/doodle_beth/status/899553495292026880 – informal Twitter poll that may be of interest.

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-08/osu-sad082817.php#.WaSLL_syUzg.facebook – Disability pride and its effect on self-esteem.

http://www.autismacceptancemonth.com/resources/101-3/ways-of-thinking-about-disability/identity-first-language/ – Identity-first

As always, just keep stimming.
Especially when they tell us not to.

3 thoughts on “The Case for Identity-first”

  1. I was just talking to my wife about how person first seems to carry with it shame about whatever condition we are speaking of. I prefer saying, I’m and Autistic person rather than I’m a person with Autism.

    Saying a person with something seems to give the idea that one day I might be without it, that’s not going to happen. I also happen to like the way my brain works for the most part and wouldn’t change it. Forcing this “person first” style of speaking seems to add even more stigma to our lives.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Courtney,

    Thanks for an excellent post that shares your feelings about this topic! Honestly I have never cared for using person-first even though I am not autistic.

    I have taught piano to an autistic student and really enjoyed working with him! Currently I’m working on writing a piano method book especially for those with special learning needs including autism. It would be great to get your opinion on it when I’m done!

    I look forward to reading more on your blog.

    Angela

    Liked by 2 people

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