Identity-first vs person-first language

Both person-first and identity-first language are used in Australia to refer to people with disability, or disabled people. People with disability often have very strong preferences for either identity-first, or person-first language. Non-disabled people need to be led by, respect and affirm each individual person with disability’s choice of language they use about themselves.

PWDA, other Disabled People’s Organisations, governments, government and non-government institutions predominantly use ‘person-first’ language when referring to people with disability. Generally, this is on the basis that a person’s disability should not be unnecessarily focused on. The dehumanisation of people with disability is still a huge problem and has been for a long period of history, so we choose to preface our language with a reminder of personhood.

Phrases like ‘the disabled’ or calling someone ‘a wheelchair’ reflect the assumption that people are reduced to just their disability (even so far as to refer to them as their mobility aid). Defining people by their disability is often used as an excuse to ignore our  humanity – to put us in a separate and lesser category so that non-disabled people don’t have to think about the wants, needs, rights or feelings of people with disability.

Violence against people with disability is often justified by talking about us as if we have a reduced level of consciousness or are not as much of a person as non-disabled people. Referring to someone as if they are nothing other than their disability – such as calling them ‘the wheelchair’ – is not ok.

Many people with disability also embrace ‘identity-first’ language, which positions disability as an identity category. This language is known as ‘identity-first’ because the identifying word comes first in the sentence and highlights the person’s embrace of their identity. For example, “I am a disabled person, like I am an Australian person or a bisexual person.”

For disabled people, their disability is an aspect of their person that they can’t control, but that they embrace as part of who they are. As an identity category, disability does not merely describe an individual body or mind, but membership within a wider cultural group.

Some specific disability communities, such as Autistic and Deaf communities, will primarily use identity-first language, and may prefer not to refer to themselves as disabled at all.

Affirming disability as an identity positions the individual to personally identify as disabled, by their own choice, rather than being told they are disabled by an external (usually non-disabled) ‘authority’.

PWDA does not support the use of euphemisms, such as ‘handicapable’ or ‘differently-abled’ or ‘special needs’ or ‘living with disability’, to refer to people with disability.

The term ‘Disabled People’s Organisation’ or ‘DPO’ is used to describe non-government organisations that are governed, led and constituted by people with disability.

‘DPO’ became the internationally accepted term at the time of the International Year of Disabled Persons in 1981, when people with disability all over the world began to organise ourselves into our own organisations.1

DPOs collectively form a disability rights movement that places people with disability at the centre of decision-making in all aspects of our lives.  This is known internationally through the motto, “Nothing About Us, Without Us”.

We have named our alliance Disabled People’s Organisations Australia (DPO Australia) to make it clear that we are made up of DPOs that are part of the international disability rights movement, and that our work is underpinned by the CRPD and a human rights framework.

Next: What is ableist language and what’s the impact of using it?

Back: What’s the social model of disability?