DOES ONE SIZE ALWAYS FIT ALL: Person VS. Identity First Language

I still remember a time back in 1995 just after I began graduate school in St. Louis. One of my friends stopped me halfway across campus talking about a sign telling people to slow down their driving on the road that snaked its way around the dorms and the academic quad. “Watch out for visually impaired pedestrian,” the sign read or something to that effect. My friend told me the reaction one of our professors gave,

“Dave’s not visually impaired; he’s blind. Not special, helpless, just blind.”

Yes, the carefully worded warning had good intentions behind it, but rather than pointing out my blindness as an ordinary thing, it drew attention to it first and made it an topic of discussion.

Isn’t that the quandary many of us face when in a new school or work environment? We want to engage people around us while they want their curiosity quelled about perhaps our most identifiable

Characteristic. I’m sure what often follows makes my eyes roll or jaw drop in bewilderment. The same people wanting to ask questions have a hard time referring to me as “blind” or “the guy who’s blind” or “the man with blindness” because they tie themselves up in sensitive knots.

In short, this illustrates the back-and-forth people in the disabilities community face. Some want to refer to themselves first as people while making their blindness or deafness akin to an add-on they hope others will pass over when talking about work or school concerns. Other people will not shy away but use their disability to describe themselves or others like them: “I’m blind…” “the deaf parent…” “the autistic child….” And so forth. To them, blindness, deafness, being paraplegic is part of their whole identity.

 The Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) sought to foreground the fact that people who did not have a disability and those who do are all Americans. Hence, to protect the general welfare of all Americans as is done in the Declaration of Independence’s preamble, the ADA made stipulations how our nation could accommodate the needs of people with disabilities to provide for their “pursuit of happiness.”

As Phillip Ferrigon writes, “People-First language (or Person-First language; PFL) is the preferred disability terminology by activists. The attempt in using PFL is placing the person first, allowing others to disassociate the disability as the primary defining characteristic of an individual, and viewing disability as one of several features of the whole person.”

That’s so like the 1990s when society began to shift toward a perspective saying everyone needed to have a piece of the American dream’s pie. Following on the economic reforms set in place by the Reagan administration including lowered taxes, higher wages, lower unemployment and American prevalence on the world’s political and athletic stage, the upwardly mobile worker believed that anyone could achieve his or her American dream if he only got the opportunity. If, for instance, a student who was blind or paraplegic excelled in his school’s least restrictive environment, how would he not compete with his peers for the best colleges and jobs? Dove-tailing on the Rehabilitation Act (1973), the ADA held out a bright promise if only people with disabilities captured one of those thousand points of light that Pres. Bush spoke of early on in his term.

Many in the disability rights community adopted this people first language to garner respect. But as Cara Liebowitz explains: “Though person-first language is designed to promote respect, the concept is based on the idea that disability is something negative, something that you shouldn’t want to see.”

Contemporaneous with a switch from teaching braille to mostly audible technology, the time surrounding the ADA’s implementation widened the gap between laws in favor of the disabled community’s participation in the public square and people’s perception of their capabilities. According to long-standing users of braille and many educators, an increasing dependence on audio only technology created students who remained functionally illiterate

Hence, many in the blindness community fell through the cracks. The unemployment rate did not decrease even as computer technology advanced. What was missing? Those who do not speak in person/people first language will say that their blindness, deafness, and other physical disabilities are woven into the fabric of who they are. (Identity first language, IFL). A growing awareness of what a blind person can and can’t do didn’t make their transition between home to college or school to work any easier. In fact, by backgrounding the disability, many students feared that “being treated like any one else” would result in receiving the least amount of help, testing accommodations, or social support as possible.

In the past few decades, technology has advanced. Advocacy to raise awareness has continued. PFL vs. IFL proponents have kept to the same points addressed above while adding others. Perhaps, chief among the reasons people on both side of the debate give is that of dignity.

Those in favor of using PFL to describe themselves say that if we emphasize our abilities and strive in our actions to appear as “normal” as possible, the onus remains on members of society to drop their prejudices and see a person’s disability as just that nuisance or barrier to full inclusion into the mainstream world in which we all want to live. Blindness, deafness, or dyslexia is just a part of who  the person is that has said disabilities. Furthermore, adaptations such as talking kitchen appliances, screen readers, and handheld money or color identifiers compensate for the difficulties that being blind presents.

The proponent of IFL doesn’t find dignity in separating his disability from himself or in backgrounding it like an add-on component. To live in the everyday world for them is to live as a blind, deaf, autistic, or paraplegic person. Advocates of IFL wish for the rest of society to also adopt this perspective second hand. This entails as much person to person relationship as it does legal action. Only by befriending, working with, or being related to a disabled individual can someone let their guard down enough to embrace his capabilities.

A Third Option:

While I appreciate both the PFL and IFL perspectives, either can only go so far. While academics and many advocates speak person first on a more scholarly level, writing in this way become dry, clumsy, and hard to read for the average person. On the other hand, if we always assume our disabilities into our identity, then we’re going to vie for our rights in competition against other special interest groups when it comes to garnering the courts’ attention or a legislator’s attention. Even in the case of finding intersectionality, identity only carries us to the point of idealizing potential outcomes.

That’s why I pose the possibility of a setting or context based synthetic approach. In social settings like at a dinner with friends, riding the bus, hanging out at a ballgame, or so forth we just want to blend in. Adaptations and techniques for mobility help us be part of the crowd. On the other hand, when we do want to foreground our concerns such as when advocating for audio description or web accessibility rights on a college campus, speaking person first draws attention to the concerns at hand. In these cases, we are building upon those legal acts already designed to welcome us into everyday society.

Being boldly blind means calling a thing what it is. Yes, we will continue meeting new, mostly unintended disparate impact, challenges to our aims of societal inclusion. As such, we meet those challenges thankful for the livelihood we have while helping others’ awareness of how mainstream society can better embrace the livelihood we can all share.

Works quoted in this article:

Person-First Language vs. Identity-First Language: An examination of the gains and drawbacks of Disability Language in society

By Phillip Ferrigon
DSSV 607 – Higher Education Disability Service Administration

I am Disabled: On Identity-First Versus People-First Language

March 20, 2015 by Cara Liebowitz

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