Sunday, August 5, 2012

Disability first: autism is not an accessory

For the record, my thoughts on person-first vs. identity-first language! This was originally published on the AAPD intern blog.

The phrase “person with a disability” seems like something that you’d find on packaging for action figures.

Which is to say that recently I verbalized a lot of things that I think about the debate regarding person-first language ("person with a disability," "person with autism") vs. identity-first language ("disabled person," "Autistic person"), and the attitudes that people often express when talking about this issue, and other disability-related discussions where those same attitudes crop up.

So basically, to me, “person with a disability” sounds like “Magneto action figure with detachable cape” – like the disability is an extra that comes with the person, but not really a part of that person. Lots of disabled folks and communities have valid reasons for wanting people to use person-first language – for example, people with intellectual disabilities often prefer to be referred to that way, and I respect that. However, when non-disabled people insist on only ever using person-first language, I often feel like it’s because they don’t want to play with the action figure until they’ve detached the disability, so to speak.

When disabled people, Autistic and non-autistic, say that they use identity-first language to refer to themselves, a common retort is “I don’t understand why you would define yourself by your disability.” To me, this doesn’t make sense. I call myself disabled because I don’t think my disability needs to be held at arm’s length, not because I believe that I’m autism on legs.

(As with my other traits, I refer to my disability with an adjective-noun construction which is common to the English language. I would also describe myself as a long-haired woman. So far no one has come forward to demand that I instead refer to myself as “an individual with long hair,” or accused me of “defining myself by my hair length.”)

I’m starting to think that when people say “defining yourself by your disability” they really mean “talking about yourself in a way that reflects the belief that your disability is not detachable.”

I was at a conference last summer at which Ari Ne’eman gave an introductory speech, and it fell to him to explain why ASAN uses identity-first language. One of the things he said, which I really liked, was “If I’m on a flight and the airline loses my luggage, I don’t arrive without my autism.” And I feel like this is actually sort of central to the difference between disabled identity-first proponents and non-disabled person-first proponents: they want the disability to be separable enough from us that we can hide it, pack it in a suitcase, and maybe, one day, be able to lose the suitcase forever with the help of a cure! Or, to use my earlier analogy, they want our disabilities to be like an action figure accessory that you can put on and take off, so that they can choose when to interact with and accommodate our disabilities.

So why do I use identity-first language to describe myself? Because I like my disability, but more importantly, because it is a part of me that can never be separated from my personhood. I don’t want to encourage anyone to think of my disability as detachable from who I am.