Identity-First Language vs. People-First Language

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Did you know that there are different ways to refer to different people with disabilities? While there are different opinions within the disability community about how to talk about people with disabilities, being respectful and asking an individual about their preference are always good ideas.

What’s the difference?

Identity-first language is a way of referring to individuals that emphasizes what they consider to be a core part of their identity. Identity-first language is more common in the autism community, where some people identify as autistic and work to dispel the notion that autism as an unfortunate affliction or defining characteristic.

Examples of identity-first language in the autism community could include “autistic person” or “autistic individual.”

People-first language, on the other hand, puts the person before their disability or condition. The theory here is that someone is a person first and not defined by their disability. Historically, people with disabilities were often referred by the name of their disability, which denied their individualism and, in a way, dehumanized them.

A broad example of people-first language is “person with a disability.” More specific examples could include “an individual with Down syndrome” or “a person with an intellectual disability.”

Our poll

Throughout the disability community, preferences on how to refer to people vary widely, which was reflected in a poll we conducted of our social media followers. We had 129 people answer our poll and share their opinions on this topic. Here were the results:

  • 11% preferred identity-first language
  • 56% preferred people-first language
  • 26% were okay with using either
  • 7% answered “other” but didn’t tell us why

One person who preferred identity-first language said, “I’m disabled. My daughter is disabled. Person-first is often (not always) pushed by parents and providers as if disabled is a shameful word.”

Another who preferred people-first said, “My son is diagnosed with Down Syndrome/Autism, but that’s not who he is.”

Others said that as long as a person was speaking and acting respectfully, they didn’t have a preference.

When in doubt, ask

Ultimately, this issue of what language to use is all about respect. If you aren’t sure about how to refer to someone, do the respectful thing and just ask them. Getting the person’s preference directly from them ensures that they choose – not someone else – how they’re referred to.

Additional resources

Identity-First Language: In the autism community, there are differing views on how to refer to autistic individuals. In this article, Lydia Brown explores this topic and makes the case for identity-first language. You can also listen to the Identity-First Language article.

People-First Language: A resource from the Texas Council for Developmental Disabilities covers everything you need to know about people-first language. Download the People-First Language handout (PDF) to learn about why words matter and what you should say.