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  • Writer's pictureShayna Gavin, Splash Principal Physiotherapist

Do you use person or identify first language?

The way people talk about their identity as it relates to their disability is a personal decision, relating to first hand experiences, in the context of the disability rights movement.

What is person first language?

Person first language is where the person is emphasised first, while their condition, disability or other characteristics, to the extent that it is relevant, comes second. For example “people with disabilities” rather than “the disabled”, “a child who has cerebral palsy” rather than “a cerebral palsy child”, or “a person who has epilepsy” than “an epileptic”.

The theory is that it recognises the worth of an individual as a person instead of as purely a condition or disability. It shows that a condition or disability is not the defining characteristic of an individual.

It is typically used by offical services, such as health departments and governments, as a respectful way to describe groups of people who have disabilities.

It has arisen to overtake previous language, such as describing people as “handicapped”, “crippled”, “special needs person” or other offensive outdated language such as “retarded” or “spastic”.

Scope’s 2010 campaign “see the person, not the disability” fits under this model, encouraging us to get to know the person, and not limit their whole identity to their disability.

Image 'See the person not the disabilitiy'

IMAGE: "See the person not the disability" on a green background with standing stick figures and shadows of a figure in a wheelchair

VIDEO: Scope's TV advertisement shows a young man with cerebral palsy sitting in his wheelchair waiting on a train platform. He wears headphones and sings along loudly and appears to be enjoying himself. A young woman on the platform looks towards him appearing worried, the inference being she is worried because his speech is difficult for her to understand and different than she might usually expect. The song the man is listening to comes up and writing appears across the screen, "Relax, he's just another Radiohead fan".

What is identity first language?

In contrast, many people prefer identity first language. Examples of this would be saying “I am Autistic” rather than “I have Autism”; or describing a group of “disabled people” rather than “people with disabilities”. The Deaf community’s use of “Deaf” with a capital D as an identifier is good example of this, to identify being a part of Deaf culture as opposed to having the medical condition of being “deaf”.

Reclaiming previously derogatory words is another example of identify first language, eg. a person choosing to describe themselves as a “Crip” comes from the outdated descriptor “crippled”. These reclaimed words are generally context specific and are used by people describing themselves, and are not used by others outside the community when describing the group.

Identity first language is often preferred where people feel that their disability is an important part of their identity, and is not something that can be separated from them as a person. Another argument for its use is that characteristics of a person are separated with people first language only when characteristics are seen to be a negative thing. Instead, using identity first language deliberately puts the characteristic front and centre. Person first is also sometimes seen as laughable: “I know I’m a person thanks for the reminder”.

Identity first language is founded on the social model of disability, which in short, recognises that although people may have impairments in their body structure or function (to use the ICF terms), it is the society they live in that creates disability. For example, a person who independently uses a wheelchair would be able to access all aspects of society if the built environment was completely wheelchair accessible. Or that a person who has a hearing impairment / describes themselves as Deaf, and who uses sign language to communicate, would be able to access all aspects of society independently if all communication was accessible eg. if everyone could also use sign language; all TV, movies and video material is subtitled; alternatives such as hearing loops and written messages on screens are used for PA announcements in public spaces etc.

Person vs identity first language

IMAGE: Drawings of people using identity first language (Deaf, Autistic, Blind) and people first language (person who... has Down Syndrome, is chronically ill, uses wheelchair)

Do identify and person first language get mixed up together?

And just to confuse you, many people use both models interchangeably!

Many people with first hand experience of living with a disability have written about their experiences and preferences, and this is an easy subject to learn more about with a quick search. We’ve included a few links at the end of this article.

So what do we do? Does the Splash team use person or identity first language?

At Splash Physiotherapy we recognise that when we need to identify a group of people, there will be individuals within that group who have varied preferences in how they / their group / their culture / their disability is described. Both models seek to empower people through respectful language. It is a very sensitive subject that many people are passionate about.

We choose to use person first language in all our conversations, report writing and online communication, while acknowledging that individuals within these groups prefer different language to describe themselves.

This is a conscious choice, having considered the risks of both forms of language. We mean no offence, and we support every individual’s absolute right to use the language that suits them best. Where requested, we do our best to use the language preferred by that individual.

Suggested reading:

Type ‘identity first language’ or ‘person first language’ into your preferred search engine to dive into the many articles written from first hand experience.

The following off - site links are provided as places you may like to start. We in no way endorse, accept or criticise any of the content contained in these links.

Social Model of Disability, People with Disability Australia

Cara Liebowitz, 2015

Jim Sinclair, 2010

Lydia Brown, originally from Autistic Hoya, 2011

Lydia Brown, Autistic Hoya, 2011

Also has a long list of links to consider, offering a broad spectrum of opinions

Arc of Anchorage, for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities

Texas Council for People with Disabilities

Includes a list of examples, say this not that

United Spinal Association, 2008

Australian Network on Disability

Wendy, 2012, Adventures of a Deaf Disability Studies Professor at Syracuse University

David Oaks, 2012

The Squeaky Wheelchair, first person blog, 2014

Stella Young, 2014

Erin Schick, Did I stutter, 2015

Shayna Gavin is a physiotherapist who is passionate about helping babies, children and young people learn functional skills so they can participate in life at home, school and in their community. Recognising that children do best in their own environments, she visits homes, schools, and leisure activities from football fields to ballet classes. She also has daily aquatic physiotherapy sessions available at two private swimming schools in Moonee Ponds and Greensborough, Melbourne. She combines principles of paediatric physiotherapy, Neuro Developmental Treatment / Bobath, motor learning, Sensory Integration and swimming teaching to address the individual needs of each child and their family. She loves providing professional development to physiotherapists, allied health and education professionals, allied health assistants and swimming teachers.

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