IFL vs. PFL: my preference

zipporah arielle
5 min readAug 30, 2019

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A Brief Word On My Preference for Identity-First Language

“A Person With A Disability”. Outline of a person toting a dolly with two boxes. The person is labeled “a person”. The dolly is labeled “their disability”. Below are the words “A Person With A Disability”.

Person-first language = “person with a disability”. Identity-first language = “disabled person”.
If you’re totally unfamiliar with the concept, I recommend
@EbThen’s guide on the matter. They introduced me to the language for these concepts.

First of all, let me start by saying that this is not an issue upon which there is any agreed consensus amongst disabled people, so this is all just based on my rhetorical analysis (which is my fancy, academic way of saying my thoughts and feelings after some amount of consideration). Someone’s preference is always the correct way to refer to the person in question. I don’t consider person-first language derogatory or offensive; I use “PWD” often as shorthand; and I frequently use both. But I am, however, fundamentally opposed to the idea that person-first language should be used exclusively or even predominantly, and the idea that identity-first language should never be used as it is somehow offensive.

Academic and caregiver fields tend to push people towards person-first language. Indeed, many people are taught that PFL is correct, and IFL is less so. The idea behind this, as I understand it, is that they’re centering the person’s humanity by decentering their disability.

Tweet reading “Just a general PSA for those who don’t know- it’s important to use person first language when referring to people who have disabilities. For example, say “the boy with autism” rather than “the autistic boy” Their disability does not define them as a person”. The handle and default pic are blocked out.
Screenshot of an example of one such tweet. The handle and deafult pic are blocked out. The text reads: “Not that it’s a super big deal but it is always better to use the term “person/people with a disability” than “disabled person,” you always want to put the person before the disability.”

But to me, I don’t feel centering my disabledness in any way decenters my humanity, or negates my personhood. (Indeed, I’m quite fond of adjectives and think they work quite well!). I am Jewish, I am queer, and I am disabled. I don’t feel my disabledness is in any way separate from me, the way I don’t feel my Jewishness or queerness are distinct or apart from me. That’s why I feel that the over-emphasis on PFL does the opposite of humanizing disabled people; it instead portrays disabledness as being totally separate from a person. It’s no longer a thing that you are, but a thing that you have. “Person with a disability.” As if my disability is a whole other entity that I carry around with me in my purse all day, floating around amongst the chapstick and faded, crumpled receipts.

“I’m a person with a disability. I keep the disability with me in my bag, because it doesn’t fit in my pockets.”

Both PFL (“person with a disability”) and IFL (“disabled person”) use the word “person”; but only on the one where disability is portrayed as separate, distinct, and secondary do we say we feel we’ve centered someone’s personhood. But to me, speaking of “disability” instead of “disabled people” divorces the person from their biological reality — it paints their disability as a singular thing. When we talk about “disability rights”, we really mean “rights for Disabled people”. If we’re thinking literally, disabilities don’t need rights; people who have disabilities do. That’s why I talk often about disabledness, instead of disability — to me, this subtle language just helps to slightly re-center the actual reality of a disabled person.

So, I don’t feel humanized by the fact that some people feel the being disabled and being a person are mutually exclusive, and I don’t feel humanized by the fact that people feel the need to distance my disabledness from my personhood in order to treat me like they would treat anyone else. Both of which come down to this major point: I don’t feel humanized by the fact that people think being disabled is a bad thing.

One of the major arguments I’ve seen against identity-first language is that it “defines people” by their disability. Yes, it does! That is how adjectives work. And that is okay! Because the thing it is defining people as is not a bad thing. I repeat: disabled is not a bad thing. To paraphrase my friend Imani Barbarin’s former twitter bio, “if you don’t see my disabledness, you don’t see me”. It’s okay to be disabled.

The only argument against defining people by their disability to talk about disabled people — the way we would their gender, race, or any other pertinent aspect one talks about — is that we think of disabledness as bad. It’s rooted in the notion that disabledness is lesser or shameful, instead of something that just is.

(For the record, overcorrecting by fetishizing and infantilizing disabled people as being “special stars” or “handicapable” or “special angels” — all things people have actually called me!! to my face!!! — is just as bad. The same logic also applies to all other insinuated, round-about ways of talking about disabledness, including “diffabled” and “special needs”.) Disabledness deserve to exist in neutral, milquetoast mediocrity, just like anything else.

brilliantly hilarious tweet from @YourDadIsIzzy that says “Yeah. Like. Don’t put me on a pedestal, IM DISABLED I CAN’T GET DOOOOWWWNNNNNNN!”
““Handicapable” sounds like it should be said with a fake smile a jaunty swing of the elbow and a patronizing tone. I always read it in the voice of Abby Cadabby from Sesame Street. That’s what it sounds like to me. Just saccharine condescension.”

I’m not alone in my preference. I’ve conducted two surveys in my time on twitter (the most recent one is here, embedded below), asking other disabled people what they prefer.

Both times, identity-first language won by a significant margin. Out of 3,108 disabled people who participated in the most recent poll, 933 people responded saying they prefer person-first language and 2,175 people responded saying they prefer identity-first language. It also depends greatly on the specific disability, as many have pointed out. I’ll let autistic, Deaf/deaf/HoH, and blind folx speak for themselves; but many prominent activists in those communities have a long history of advocating for similarly reclaiming language (such as the capital D in Deaf, or the use of “autistic” vs “person with autism”).

There are tons of campaigns and hashtags aimed at destigmatizing the word “disabled”. #DisabledNotVoldemort; #DiSAYbled, #SayTheWord, #DisabledAndCute, and my own contribution, #ThisIsWhatDisabledLooksLike, all seek to affirm disabled individuals and help people claim their disabledness. These hashtags have the added benefit of nondisabled individuals being exposed to rhetoric and images around disability, and seeing “disabled” named proudly and represented.

In other words, it’s okay to call me what I am — disabled! It’s not a bad thing, and it’s not a bad word. If you feel that the word “disabled” is inherently negative, sit with yourself and ask yourself why. We live in a society that prioritizes healthy, abled, neurotypical, biotypical bodies; pernicious ableism is the result. You may have to unlearn what you felt you know about disability, and relearn in a whole new way (ideally from the work of disabled scholars and activists!!). For many non-disabled people, speaking plainly about disability and not feeling a need to skirt around the word is going to be the first step to being less uncomfortable with disabled people and our disabledness.

follow me on twitter for more content on disability and chronic illness.

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