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Communicating About Disabilities: Identity-First or Person-First Language?

POSTED ON 
August 7, 2023

Thirty-three years ago, on July 26, 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law. This historic civil rights law protects the rights of people with disabilities.   

But wait – is it “people with disabilities” or “disabled people”? The answer is "it depends" but we're here to help you understand that nuance.

TABLE OF CONTENTS: 

@linkList; ;What's Person-First Language?;What Is Identity-First Language?;Is Person-First Language Bad?;Tips for Disability-Inclusive Communications  

What's Person-First Language?

If you’ve ever wondered how to talk about protected categories like race and gender in your employee comms, you’ve probably come across the guidance to use person-first language. (In fact, it’s one of the key principles of inclusive language in our highly popular DEI Style Guide!)  

As its name implies, person-first language aims to make the whole person – not their specific differences – the essential focus of our communication. Person-first language honors the individual for who they are, rather than reducing them to what they have (e.g., “person with schizophrenia” rather than “schizophrenic”).  

As communicators, it’s probably clear to us why “person with schizophrenia” is preferable to “schizophrenic.” Especially when it comes to mental illness, collapsing illness with essential personhood can feel stigmatizing and problematic. It also feels ableist. So, naturally, using person-first language makes sense in this context.  

But there are other contexts in which people do identify with what they have – especially disabled people.   

According to Emily Ladau, disability rights activist and author of Demystifying Disability, “Don’t dance around disability. Just say the word.” Is disability something that you have, or is it something that’s at the core of your identity? For Landau and others, it’s at the core of who they are. This is where identity-first language comes in.  

One in four adults in the U.S. has some type of disability; globally, 16% of the population is disabled; and most disability goes underreported in the workplace. As internal comms pros talking to diverse employee audiences, it’s essential that we get the distinction between identity-first language and person-first language right (as much as we can!). Though the choice always depends on context, it’s important that we’re even aware that there are contexts where people use identity-first language.   

Let’s dive deeper into what identity-first language is and why it matters. Read on for more!  

What Is Identity-First Language? 

Put simply, identity-first language uses the name of a person’s condition as an adjective, rather than using the phrasing “a person with,” to emphasize how the condition is an essential part of that person’s identity.   

Examples of identity-first language include: 

  • I’m Autistic.  
  • Robert is a blind man who loves to crochet. 
  • Loretta identifies as a deaf person but doesn’t feel that deafness limits her.  

While self-identification – that is, how a person chooses to refer to themselves – always determines whether you use identity-first language in your employee communications, it’s important to note that many disability advocates strongly prefer identity-first language because their disability is a core part of their identity.  

As Cara Liebowitz, a member of the disability community, points out, she’s a Jewish woman – not a “person with femaleness” or a “person with Jewishness.” Similarly, she’s a disabled woman. For Cara, it’s important to call her what she is because that is destigmatizing. Disability is not separate from her identity – and attempts to separate it are harmful because they make disability an undesirable word.  

The Autistic community also rejects the phrasing “a person with autism” because they feel that it is impossible to affirm the worth and value of an Autistic person without recognizing how autism is essential to their selfhood.

💡 PRO TIP: Lowercase autistic is used to describe the condition; uppercase Autistic refers to the person or the community. 

Read 3 Principles for Crafting Inclusive Internal Communications

Is Person-First Language Bad? 

Essentially? No. In certain contexts? Yup.  

To understand the use case for identity-first language better, let’s take a step back and understand the history of person-first language. The first major self-advocacy disability rights movement, People First, was formed in the U.S. in the 1970s. Dedicated to people’s individuality, personhood, and unique needs and experiences in the disability community, People First was a space for disabled people to come together and affirm their identity.

A decade later, in the 1980s, the People With AIDS movement was founded. People With AIDS was dedicated to building awareness around the stigmatization of language like “AIDS victim” and “AIDS patient” and made the first formal push for person-first language in America:  

We condemn attempts to label us as “victims,” a term that implies defeat, and we are only occasionally “patients,” a term that implies passivity, helplessness, and dependence upon the care of others. We are “People With AIDS.”  

Interestingly, person-first language was written into law in the 1990s in both the ADA and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  

But the 1990s were a long time ago (over 30 years ago?! *gulp*), and language is always evolving. What was once considered the respectful way to refer to people with disabilities is now falling out of favor with the Autistic community, the Deaf community and others.  

The intention of person-first language is worthy – it seeks to affirm the worth and dignity of all. It’s important to note that person-first language is still best practice when writing about people with defined diseases (“a child with epilepsy”) or mental illness (“a woman with bipolar”). But for other communities, identity-first is preferable and, most importantly for us as internal communicators, inclusive.   

👉 BOTTOM LINE: Person-first language is preferred when referring to defined diseases or mental illnesses. Identity-first language is preferred in the disabled and Autistic communities. 

Learn how to build Inclusive & Accessible Cultures Through HR and Communications

Tips for Disability-Inclusive Communications 

Still not sure when to use identity-first language or person-first language? Some tips to consider:  

  1. Be curious: Check a variety of sources, including self-advocacy groups and organizations led by the communities you’re writing about, to see what language they use and why. 
  2. Be respectful: Review your communications for terms that may need extra consideration. If you can, ask people from the community you’re trying to reach to gut-check your content. Tap your ERGs or DEI Committee, and be sure to send a small gift/note of thanks for the time they took to help! 
  1. Be consistent: Moving back-and-forth between identity-first language and person-first language can be confusing and disorienting when describing a single condition. Don’t say “Autistic person” AND “person with autism” in the same communication; stick to one style unless you’re given feedback otherwise. 
  1. Be flexible: Actively seek feedback and adjust if necessary! Consider launching a pulse survey to gauge how your content is landing with employees in terms of inclusivity. If you receive concerning feedback, don’t take it personally and try a different approach. Mistakes are part of the gig! 

Keep Learning and Growing, Y’all 

One of the biggest risks in DEI communications is that there is no “right” answer. I’d argue that that’s the opportunity, too. Language is symbolic; it means different things to different people. Being an internal comms pro means getting comfortable with differences of opinion, debate and discussion, and – always – advocating for your people.  

While person-first language is still considered the “gold standard” of inclusive communications when it comes to discussing defined diseases or mental illness, identity-first language is preferred by many in the disabled, Autistic and Deaf communities. Be sure to get the distinction right by:  

✔️ Checking a variety of sources, including members of the communities you’re describing  
✔️ Gut-checking your content with your ERGs or DEI Committee and thanking them for their feedback 
✔️ Opting for a consistent style when discussing a single condition (identity-first OR person-first)
✔️ Adjusting your approach, based on pulse survey feedback or more informal, water cooler feedback  

If you’re eager for strategic guidance from someone who studies this all day every day, reach out! We love a good discussion at Brilliant Ink. For more bite-sized brilliance, subscribe to our monthly employee engagement newsletter, the Inkwell, and follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter and Pinterest

Download our DEI Style Guide

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