Unpacking two myths about identity-first language
Language doesn’t create prejudice — pretending it does allows us to ignore deeper cultural problems
Several months ago, I wrote a piece about why I dislike person-first language. The alternative, which used to be standard, is identity-first language. Even though many people in marginalized groups prefer identity-first language, formal style and communication guidelines commonly cite two arguments against it. Upon closer inspection, these arguments improperly blame language for the stigma certain groups experience regardless of language.
1. Identity-first language is dehumanizing.
This argument implies that referring to anyone’s identity without making sure we establish they’re, in fact, a person first is dehumanizing. But what about “man” and “woman”? Should these be replaced with “a person with manhood” or “a person with womanhood”?
If this seems absurd to you, consider that some people think you shouldn’t use the phrase “transgender person” because it’s identity-first language. But what would the alternative to this phrase be? “A person who is transgender”? “A person with gender dysphoria”? The former is clunky; the latter isn’t fully inclusive and medicalizes transgender identity.
Autistic adults like myself, who consider ourselves part of the neurodiversity movement, see our Autistic identity as more than a mere diagnosis. As a transgender person, I find the parallels quite stark — having a “gender dysphoria” diagnosis is only part of being transgender, just as having an “autism spectrum disorder” diagnosis is only part of being Autistic.
So, insisting that calling someone an “Autistic person” is dehumanizing leaves us with one alternative: a “person with autism”. Yet this turns a significant part of our identity into a mere diagnosis, a part that can be separated from the whole. Even before diagnosis, you cannot separate a person’s autism from who they are. It’s a neurodevelopmental condition that literally changes perception of the world. I would be a completely different person if I weren’t Autistic.
Many guidelines surrounding communication “inadvertently” exclude or demonize Autistic people. This has little or nothing to do with our actual diagnosis — it’s about how society devalues our communication style. It’s about how we’re seen as less trustworthy because we make less eye contact, or as insensitive because we struggle to pick up on nonverbal communication.
The discrepancy between how Autistic people naturally communicate and the forms of communication certain neurotypical societies see as ideal creates stigma. It’s not about the diagnosis or the label. I went 18 years without a diagnosis and I still experienced stigma. I just didn’t understand why those parts of me were different from most of my peers.
The language itself is not dehumanizing; the way we think about disabled people is.
The stigma around autism, and disability as a whole, runs much deeper than language. This is why terms that used to be medical diagnoses, like “idiot” and “imbecile”, have become insults. These words didn’t necessarily have negative connotations before they became ways to describe stigmatized groups.
It’s extraordinarily naive to assume that merely changing from saying “disabled people” to “people with disabilities” will erase centuries of stigma. The language itself is not dehumanizing; the way we think about disabled people is.
Putting the word “disabled” before the word “person” shouldn’t affect how human we think that “person” is. If we try to completely avoid the issue by tying ourselves up in syntactic knots, we’ll never address the real problem of dehumanization. We’ll just keep burning through term after term for disabled people, each one eventually adopting the same stigma as the last.
2. Identity-first language reduces a person to a single identity.
Let’s go back to the “man” and “woman” example. Is calling someone a “man” erasing every other identity they may have? No — because being a “man” or a “woman” is normalized, we understand that someone identifying with one of these terms can have many other identities.
So, why don’t we apply the same logic to more stigmatized populations? Being both non-binary and Autistic, I feel these are equally important to how I understand myself. These are fundamental aspects of my identity — but that doesn’t mean they’re the only parts.
To me, impassioned arguments against identity-first language reveal a deep, cultural prejudice against certain groups — in particular LGBTQ and disabled communities. If the phrase “Autistic person” leads you to believe that the person is only Autistic, changing the phrase to “person with autism” probably won’t change much.
We have a hard enough time communicating as it is — we don’t need to be policed by people adhering to a decades-old linguistic construct.
The solution to this problem is recognizing the intersectional and contextual nature of identity. Every single person inhabits numerous identities, each of which influences the others. Our identities do not exist in separate boxes somewhere in our brain; they meld together to create individual beings with individual experiences.
My Autistic experience is different from a cisgender person’s Autistic experience in part because I’m non-binary. My non-binary experience is different from an abled non-binary person’s in part because of my disability. There’s nothing wrong with this — it’s how we exist as complex beings.
When I openly identify myself as Autistic, it’s usually for a specific reason. It may be because I want others to understand why my behavior may seem unusual. It may be because I need accommodations, or because I’m explaining my history to a new doctor. Likewise, when I call myself non-binary, it’s usually for a reason — often because I’m explaining my pronouns.
Language itself does not create prejudice — it existed anyway, and flipping words around doesn’t meaningfully address stigma.
Instead of assuming the phrases “Autistic person” and “I’m Autistic” mean the person has no identities outside their autism, consider the context. We have a hard enough time communicating as it is — we don’t need to be policed by people adhering to a decades-old linguistic construct.
In certain contexts, identity-first language does reveal prejudice. But the language itself does not create the prejudice — it existed anyway, and flipping the words around doesn’t meaningfully address the stigma. If you’re on a team making hiring decisions and someone says “this candidate has great qualifications, but they’re Autistic,” the proper response is not “actually, they’re a person with autism.”
This summer, I have to take a communications class to finish my associate degree. The textbook includes a passage from the mother of a child with Down’s syndrome. She credits person-first language with helping her humanize disabled people instead of pitying them after her child was born.
I highly doubt that the language itself was responsible for her change in opinion. Rather, she had more contact with a disabled person, likely for the first time in her life. Having a child who belongs to a stigmatized group does wonders to reduce whatever prejudice you may hold. A mere shift in language will not reverse centuries of discrimination, but increased contact with disabled people could.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with identity-first language. It’s fallen out of favor largely because blaming language is easier than examining why some groups actually experience stigma. Prejudice, not language, creates dehumanization. Prejudice, not language, reduces marginalized people to one-dimensional beings.
Instead of trying to solve prejudice with hard-and-fast linguistic rules, maybe we can try spending more time interacting with marginalized people. Maybe society at large can start listening to our perspectives instead of telling us we’re wrong for using certain language or communicating in certain ways.