Let's Talk Language

For today's blog, let us talk the language of disability. An article was passed around my Facebook last week which talked about some of the problematic elements of using person first language. This got me thinking about my own linguistic journey with regards to speaking about disability and I thought I would offer just a few short thoughts about why I use the words that I do.

There are primarily two schools of thought when it comes to the language of disability. There is person-first language (person with a disability) and there is identity-first language (disabled person). For many of us in the community, which of these options we use is a personal choice and I believe that everyone should have the right to refer to themselves as they wish, provided it is not offensive. So…where did I start and where am I now?

To be perfectly honest, I don't remember the first time that I considered the language of disability. I know that in high school I had the nickname "crippled" among my closest friends (and yes, I realize that that in itself is problematic) but I guess it wasn't until University that I really put some thought into how to address this issue. Back then, I was all about person-first language. I think this is predominantly because that is the form that is used in academic discussions around disability. It wasn't until much later – the summer before graduate studies in England – that I truly stopped to unpack this language and figure out what it meant to me.

It was then that I realized that I was an identity-first kind of guy. I refer to myself as a disabled man and I take great pride in the label. There are two key factors that went into this realization. The first is that "person with a disability", to me, suggests that there is something wrong with me. Disabled person, on the other hand, suggests that I am disabled by the various elements of society. This is, in a nutshell, the social model of disability. I will say that I have some issues with a purely social model approach but in terms of language I feel that it is much more in line with my identity-first way of thinking.

The second factor is that I have enormous pride in my identity. My disability is a huge part of who I am and I have no reason to separate it linguistically from the rest of me. I am indeed "disabled" and I personally think that is great. I think deep down I have always felt slightly uncomfortable with person-first language because it creates a distance between the individual and their identity. That distance is not something that I see as advantageous and therefore it is not something I attribute to myself in any way. I think the domination of person-first language in our society reflects the fact that taking pride in being disabled is still challenging concept for many to wrap their heads around.

So there you have it, an albeit brief account of my take on the language of disability. As I said off the top, there is no right or wrong answer to this and I encourage people to use whatever they feel most comfortable with. However, I would also encourage people to constantly evaluate this choice. I have and am a better person for it.