[Top Image: An illustration showing a number of disabled people, featuring two wheelchair users, an injured person, a blind person with a guide dog, all engaging in conversation.]
There are—in general—two ways of referring to people with disability. Why isn’t there consensus, and which method should you use?
One approach, which is called person-first language (PFL), involves using phrasing such as “people with disability” and “person who is blind”. Its most vocal proponents include governments and some organisations that provide advocacy for people with disability. they say that it reduces the stigma surrounding disability by avoiding objectifying language so that people with disability are viewed as individuals who are first and foremost people who “just happen to have” a disability. Academics have argued that this framing will lead to people who do not have disability having a more positive impression of those who do. Supporters of PFL also claim that focusing on personhood will ensure that people with disability are not viewed as a homogenous group. Finally, they suggest that this phrasing may result in people with disability having a more optimistic attitude towards society and their place within it.
PFL is contrasted with identity-first language (IFL), which involves phrasing such as “disabled people” and “blind person”. Its proponents, who are largely disabled people and advocacy organisations led by disabled people, point to the lack of evidence that PFL reduces stigma and the recent suggestion that it might actually have started intensifying stigma. They also claim that a double standard has been created because PFL is only used to refer to disabilities and medical conditions, while IFL—with the notable exception of “people of colour”—is used to refer to all manner of identity characteristics. For example, contrast the phrasing “child with brown hair” with “brown-haired child”, “woman who is pregnant” with “pregnant woman” and “man who is middle-aged” with “middle-aged man”; the latter is undoubtedly much more frequent. Finally, opponents of PFL also point to the repetitiveness and clumsiness brought about by additional words. Several groups of people with disability began to use PFL in the second half of the twentieth century of which the most famous is probably the PeopleFirst movement, which emerged in the 1970s, but its rise to prominence occurred in the 1990s when some government publications and academic journals mandated that it be used and that IFL be avoided. I, a disabled person, only became aware of the controversy when a nondisabled person reproached me for referring to someone using their preferred language. It seems that PFL has reached a level of saturation in the academic community that its use today is to an extent motivated by political correctness and conformity, with some people thereby committing the ad populum fallacy. The issue with mandating PFL is that it does not account for the possibility that—just as with other movements to modernise language—it is not universally endorsed by those concerned. There are large communities of disabled people who oppose it, the most vocal of which are the Deaf and autistic communities, but there are also individuals with other disabilities who eschew it. The University’s Inclusive Language Guide warns that it is “critical to avoid” IFL, but it seems appropriate to wonder whether forcing PFL despite its persistent and widespread opposition is the most inclusive approach that could be taken. Some publications note the controversy around PFL but advise that it should continue to be used despite its opposition using simplistic arguments which are riddled with logical fallacies.
In addition to PFL and IFL, euphemisms for disability in general and specific disabilities abound. While many such terms are no longer socially acceptable, some, such as differently abled, special needs, challenged and handicapable continue to be used by nondisabled people, even though a cursory internet search for any of these terms would yield many articles decrying them. These terms either inflate or downplay a disabled person’s needs and abilities, when in fact no two people—disabled and nondisabled alike—have the same needs and abilities, and people with certain disabilities would have far fewer needs in a world that is more accessible. There is also a small—but growing—segment of the disability community who have reclaimed euphemisms such as crip and mad, primarily to express pride and resilience with members of a like-minded community, but as with all other euphemisms, it is generally inappropriate for people who are not part of these groups to use them.
So, what language should you use? I believe that the optimal strategy when communicating about disabled people is to use the language that the particular person or group prefers; and in cases where there is a lack of consensus, it is best to include a mix of PFL and IFL. A media guide published by the Sydney University Law Society uses this approach, and some style guides produced by other organisations are also adapting to respect individual and community Preferences.
Both PFL and IFL have an important role to play in increasing the social acceptance of people with disability, but the language we use to talk about disabled people is only one small piece of the puzzle.