Person-First vs Identity-First: Propose Before You Impose

Have you ever asked someone whether they preferred to be called “person with autism” or “autistic person” before you even call them whatever you preferred?

Most advocates, specifically parents and professionals, don’t. They don’t even appear to ask. They just seem to do it.

And the thing is, some of us don’t want to be called whatever you want to call us.

One of the unresolved issues in the autism community today is the nomenclature of autism and the individuals involved. Currently, there are two schools of thought on the subject: person-first language, wherein the use of “person with autism” is advocated; and identity-first language, where “autistic person” is preferred.

To those who are unaware of what these schools of thought are, here are some points that each side have in rationalizing their use. Person-first language imposes a sentence structure that names the person first and the disability second, aiming to highlight the humanity of the individual over their condition. Identity-first language, on the other hand, builds a structure that names the condition as a property of the person, putting the condition as a significant part of the individual’s humanity.

In the autism community, person-first language (“person with autism,” “has autism”) is constantly used by most parent and professional advocates, their reason that those with said condition are not what their condition dictates, but that they are who they are — people. Whereas most self-advocates prefer using identity-first language (“autistic person,” “is autistic”), on the grounds that person-first language implies that autism can be removed from the person, despite the fact that autism is a lifelong condition.

In the self-advocate community, many autistic individuals prefer to be called “autistic,” but others dissuade them from doing so, because the latter perceive that the word “autistic” can be used in a derogate manner. It is a sad thing, because many of those who are unaware of what autism really is use the condition to insult other people, connecting “autism” and “autistic” as something like “retarded,” “stupid,” “weird,” and “spoiled brat,” among others. Therefore, person-first language advocates use this scenario as a reason to impose person-first language to those on the autism spectrum.

The question is: Have they ever asked those for whom they advocate how they wanted to be called?

I have had an encounter with a fellow self-advocate (whom I’ll call “Patty”), when we were both being interviewed by college students for their research studies. We were both asked our opinions on person-first and identity-first language. I stepped in first, and defended the use of identity-first language. Patty seemed distracted by the complicated question the students have asked, so being the BigBro that I am, I asked him: “What do you preferred to be called: a ‘person with autism,’ or an ‘autistic person’?” Patty goes: “I preferred being called ‘autistic,’ because that is what I am.” After the interview, his mom, an autism advocate herself, told me that she was surprised. She happened to be an advocate of person-first language (which, by the way, is the policy of the group to where we belong), and she admitted that she haven’t even asked her son how he wanted to be called.

Another instance was during an event, where another advocate (whose brother is on the spectrum) introduced me as a “person with autism,” to which I took offense. That, however, fell into oblivion, as they didn’t seem to care whatever I said. Sad thing, because this advocate was a self-advocate themselves, and they didn’t even bother to know how I wanted to be called.

Now, I understand that some self-advocates’ choice of nomenclature is different (some wanted to be called a “person with autism,” others simply preferred “autistic person”), so here’s a safe way to go around the conflict: Ask them first whether they wanted person-first or identity-first before you call them what you want. In short, propose before you impose. Or let’s make it simpler: Call them by name. I use a first-name basis to call fellows on the spectrum. Well, sometimes, names of endearment (I usually go by names of birds or dog breeds) work for me, but on an internal basis only.

That’s my take on the debate on person-first versus identity-first. What’s yours?

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Early Bird Deadline ExtensionHOPE FOR “A” NATION: The 13th Philippine National Autism Conference is a few days away! Early registration until 16 October 2013. For more details on the conference, visit philnac2013.wordpress.com.

And while you’re at it, make a pledge to help stop the use of autism in a derogatory manner. Visit bit.ly/1pangako to know how you can help.

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