education philosopher

A Mixed View of Person-First Language

Posted in Philosophy, Teaching by KevinCK on June 23, 2016

As a professor in a College of Education, my colleagues always tell students to use person-first language when referring to students with disabilities. It is not an ‘autistic person’ but a ‘person with autism;’ not a ‘diabetic kid,’ but a ‘kid with diabetes.’ The idea is that the person comes first, and the disability or difference comes second.

I get why they do it, and while I don’t want to argue against person-first language, I do want to argue the following. First, I want to argue that while first person language may not be a bad thing, the arguments for it generally don’t survive close scrutiny; those person-first languagearguments both misunderstand how we use language and maybe overestimate how the proposed language change really affects how people think. Second, I want to argue that there are arguments for why person-first language is not always appropriate; that sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t, and that in certain instances, it may have the opposite effect of those its users intend

So, to be clear, I’m not saying that person-first is always a bad thing, just that the arguments for it tend not to be terribly good and that there are reasons why sometimes, it may not be the best way to speak. 

Does the Order Really Affect The Ideas In the Sentence? 

First, here is the intent of person first language: the idea is that saying “autistic person” defines the person by their disability where “person with autism” depicts a person (first) who has a disability (second). As one website says, “Too often an individual’s diagnosis is used to define them as an individual – the retard, the autistic boy, the stutterer. Person First Language is a way to put the person before the disability…”

But how different is it to call a person an “autistic person” rather than a “person with autism”? If I say that you are a funny person, it is doubtful that the hearer is going to think that you are funny first and a person after, or that “funny” encompasses you, or that you are nothing but funny. They’ll probably hear me as saying that “funny” is a trait that you have, and maybe the reason why I put it before “person” has to do with the conversation we are having. Maybe they have asked me who I know with a good sense of humor. In that case, it’d be odd to say “X is a person who is funny” rather than “X is a funny person.”

In many cases, “autistic person” seems like a direct synonym of “person with autism” but ordered more efficiently. It is hard to see why “My student with autism” does not put more focus on the word “autism” (and if you didn’t want the focus there, why throw it into the sentence?) than”My autistic student.” To think it does seems to entail thinking that the order of words materially affects where the focus of the sentence is. But generally, the hearer puts their focus on whatever is most interesting in the sentence, not on what comes first sequentially. If “autistic” is in the sentence, my guess is the focus will go there no matter where the word appears in the sentence. And if my talking about “my autistic student” causes you to think that autistic is all that student is, I bet you are the kind of person who will think that even if I reword and say “my student who has autism.” The word order likely won’t change how you think about the sentence’s content.

Is Autism Something You Can “Have”?

But there are also reasons why, in some cases, person-first may not seem very appropriate. I think this blog post by a self-proclaimed “autistic person” really nails it. First, autism is not something he feels he has as much as something that makes up who he is. So, “person with autism” reads like “person who is transgender” rather than “transgender person.” It treats the trait as something we can meaningfully separate from the person.

Sometimes, of course, you can. We say “person with Crohn’s disease” rather than “Chron’s diseased person” largely because we are saying “Here is a person who HAS Crohn’s disease.” Crohn’s disease is something one has, not a constitutive part of who one is, and if a person who has Crohns were to not have it, she’d arguably be much the same person minus the trait of Crohn’s disease. But it is hard to say the same with things like autism or maybe even ADHD, which seem less like traits separable from the person, but the kinds of traits that make up the person.

Dost Thou Protest Too Much?

Second, to the blogger (and myself), when I hear “person with x” I tend to hear a statement where the speaker is trying to minimize x as if x is the type of thing so awful that we wouldn’t want the hearer to think x is really part of the person. This is sort of like the difference between “black person” and “person who is black” or worse still “person who happens to be black.” There is nothing necessarily wrong with the second of these, but I think some may use it in order to distance the person from her blackness, as if blackness is a trait we wouldn’t want listeners to be distracted by. (“Person who happens to be black” seems even worse, because it sounds REALLY apologetic about blackness, as if we want listeners to know the blackness was an accident or something we don’t want to imply matters.)

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to present a trait that way. It’s sort of why we don’t say “cancerous person” but do say “a person who has cancer.” We want to depict the cancer as something regrettable that the person has, not something about the person.

But it does run counter to the disability movement’s often stated goal of not viewing disabilities always as deficits to be ashamed of. If autism is not something to be ashamed of – but is less a disability than a difference in cognition neither good nor bad – then why attempt to minimize it in the sentence, as if we don’t dare want listeners to think that autism is part of the person rather than this thing the person has who is still a person despite all that?

Now, all of this, admittedly, is a matter of interpretation. Those who say “person with autism” or “person who happens to have autism” very likely have the best of intentions and some folks will not hear the apologetic tinge to the sentence that I do. But my point, again, is not that person-first is bad, but that it is not uniformly good and not everyone we use it on behalf of will appreciate it.

I’m not sure there is a good approach to knowing when to use person-first language and when not to, because like any issue involving language, different ears will interpret the same sentences differently. But we know that there are times when we shouldn’t use it. “Gay person” seems much more appropriate than “person who is gay,” and my guess is that it is because homosexuality (or sexuality in general) is less a trait that one “has” than an integral part of who one “is.” So, if someone experiences autism as a part of who they are, it may be strange to say “person who is autistic” because you are treating what they see as a core part of them as a trait separable form them (at least for purposes of the sentence).

In other cases – where the trait may be less a part of a person than just something the person “has” – person-first language seems a good approach. We say that Sally has ADHD rather than….well, we actually don’t even have another alternative in that case. Or that Sally has a learning disability, rather than talking about learning disabled Sally.

At the end of the day, though, I simply think we need to use the same discretion we always do with language, part of which involves thinking about what the person we are referring to would want. If we use person-first (or the more “traditional way”) and find the person doesn’t appreciate it, then as best we can, we should accommodate their preference.

Again, my goal is not to argue that person-first language is always bad, but to argue that it may not always be good. Sometimes, I’m not sure it makes any difference other than to make the speaker feel better about herself. Other times, I think there is good reason not to use person-first language. And in still others, person-first makes good sense.



One Response

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  1. Alex Horton said, on December 16, 2016 at 8:15 pm

    Right on!

    I am blind. Referring to me as a blind person rather than a person who is blind isn’t going to make me able to see.

    The great majority of the time, political correctness just makes a mountain out of a molehill.

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