The Body Is Not An Apology

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The Problem with Person-First Language: What’s Wrong with This Picture?

by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg
Content Manager and Writer

Source: Facebook

[The image consists of four standing figures — two male and two female — with a wheelchair logo in shadow behind each one. The background is grey-green. The text reads, “See the Person, Not the Disability.”]

This graphic came across my Facebook page a while back. It took me some time to discern all the things about it that are problematic.

At first, all I could see was a problem with the intent of the text: the idea that one has to choose between seeing the person and seeing the disability. Why should that be a choice? My immediate response was to reframe it as follows:

See BOTH the person AND the disability. Because there is nothing dehumanizing or shameful about a disability.

My rewriting speaks to the heart of the problem with person-first language and its insistence on turns of phrase like “person with disabilities” rather than the identity-first language of “disabled person.” Such language betrays the assumption that disability renders one less of a person. If that assumption were not present, there would be no reason to foreground the fact that we really, really, really are people, and that one has to put the disability aside in order to see how really, really, really human we are. Of course, that rather problematic logic begs the question: How exactly does one pretend not to see a disability once it has made itself known? In most contexts, that would be called denial.

Once I got done with the text, I thought I had reached the limit of what was wrong with the graphic. But over time, I noticed something else. Barely visible behind each of the standing figures is the shadow outline of a person in a wheelchair (symbolizing the “disability,” despite the fact that most disabled people do not use wheelchairs), while the “person” (whom we are supposed to “see”) is standing up on two feet.

In other words, being a person means being able-bodied. This assumption is hidden inside person-first language as well. After all, if I’m a “person with disabilities,” and you don’t look at the disabilities, then what I am without them? I’m able-bodied. Why? Because the very definition of able-bodied is to be without disability. Without the construct of disability, the word “able-bodied” would have no meaning at all.

But there is a third problem with the graphic, having to do with the way it represents and organizes the figures by gender. If you’ll notice, no two people of the same gender are next to each other. All the pairings are male-female. And all the figures fit into the gender binary, leaving no room for people who do not — which gets me to thinking, that if you put a genderqueer symbol in shadow behind each figure, you’d have an equivalent graphic for “See the Person, Not the Genderqueerness.” And in the logic of the graphic, a genderqueer person wearing a dress would be a woman, and a genderqueer person wearing pants would be a man.

I want to make clear that I am not against the use of person-first language. For the sake of variety in my writing, I sometimes use it, and I don’t mind it when others do. I don’t feel particularly inclined to interfere with the decisions that disabled people make regarding self-identification. To me, whether a disabled person self-identifies as differently abled, or a person with disabilities, or disabled matters not at all. I can argue the merits and the implications of different kinds of language, but if I’m talking with people who consider themselves differently abled, and that turn of phrase helps them move with some modicum of power and self-esteem through a world that considers them of lesser worth, I will respect where they are in their process, and I will address them as they wish to be addressed.

So it is not so much person-first language that I object to as the insistence, in some quarters, that people should always use person-first language, and that it is always more respectful than identity-first language. When I first set up my Autism and Empathy site, for example, one reader told me, quite vehemently and angrily, that I absolutely should not use the term autistic, that it was dehumanizing, and that I should always say person with autism; she was quite upset with me when I used the terms interchangeably. This imperative to always use person-first language is mirrored in the graphic, along with the rationale that underlies that imperative. It’s not that person-first language is good or bad, in and of itself. It’s that the rationale for its sole use as a respectful means of address perpetuates the idea that there is something shameful and dehumanizing about disability. It’s that particular way of looking at disability that needs addressing.

When all is said and done, the slogan of “See the Person, Not the Disability,” is based on the premise that disability can be separated from the person, leaving only that person’s humanity. The problem with this line of reasoning, of course, is that disability is inseparable from humanity. We all have bodies that are diverse, that are created in ways beyond our control, that change without our consent, and that are vulnerable to age, to accident, to illness, and to all of the contingencies of life. So if you want to see the whole person, look carefully at the disability, because that is where a core feature of our humanity lies.

This piece appeared on the author’s Disability and Representation blog on May 30, 2012 and is reprinted by permission.

Filed under disability ableism person-first language identity-first language

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