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The Difference Between Person First Language and Identity First Language

March 5, 2024

The use of person first language and identity first language has been a topic of debate in the disability community. The terms are used interchangeably by some people in the disability community, while others prefer one over the other. The issue is particularly complicated because many people who do not prefer identity-first language are offended by the use of it, even if it is meant as a respectful way to talk about them.
The term identity first language refers to wording that leads with a descriptor of a person’s disability or medical condition, e.g., “autistic person,” “person who has a brain injury,” or “people with spinal cord injuries.” This linguistic practice is often favored by members of the blind, deaf, and autistic communities, who argue that their characteristics are an inseparable part of their identity and belong to their community and should be emphasized rather than minimized or treated as negative.
When a person first language or identity first language is preferred, this preference should be respected regardless of whether the use of person first or identity first language is recommended by a style guide or advocacy organization. If you are unsure about which term to use, simply ask the individual in question what they prefer.
Using person first or identity first language is typically more appropriate when talking to a single individual, or when writing for an audience with whom you are not familiar. Then, you should default to the term that the individual prefers (APA, 2019).
In medical contexts, person first language is generally endorsed and recommended by governmental organizations such as the World Health Organization and major medical institutions. It is also a preference of most style guides.
For example, in the field of drug addiction and substance abuse, person-first language is widely used to replace stigmatizing words such as addict and alcoholic. Likewise, many mental health organizations and advocates suggest using person- first language to reduce stigma associated with suicide.
The reason for this preference is that it removes a trait from the person, which can reinforce stereotypes or lead to discrimination or unwanted different treatment.
This linguistic practice is typically preferred when discussing a medical or mental health condition, such as schizophrenia or depression. It is also commonly used by groups that advocate for people with disabilities to destigmatize the condition and emphasize a person’s humanity instead of treating them as an object or statistic.
APA Style recommends person-first language when discussing mental health issues and medical conditions in general. However, it is advisable to ask the person about their preference, especially if you are unable to discover it or if you are writing for a large group.
In addition, person-first language is frequently used by advocates for suicide prevention and by people with disabilities to counteract the negative connotations associated with the phrase “person with a disability.” This reasoning is based on the belief that a person’s disability should be the defining characteristic of their identity, rather than an external factor. This language is backed up by the notion that disabilities are inseparable from a person’s identity and can be viewed as a form of diversity. It is also used to emphasize the unique experiences and strengths of a particular person.

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