Person-First vs Identity-First: Debates

While I’m currently doing a feature on our Awesome of the Month for November (which will come out on December), let’s have a quick break from Team Awesomeness, and deal with one unresolved issue in the autism community: the debate on person-first and identity-first language.

As I have already iterated in my post titled Person-First vs Identity-First: Propose Before You Impose, while person-first language (“person with autism”) is something many advocates, specifically parents and professionals, impose on society, identity-first language (“autistic person”) is preferred by many individuals on the autism spectrum. I have hit a perfecta of points on the previous post, and before reading further, I urge you to read the aforementioned post prior to going further. If you have, though, and you understand what I meant, please proceed.

Now here’s the deal. I had been receiving feedback on my use of identity-first language on my posts, and most of the comments happen to be negative. They had been, however, delivered via Facebook, so you won’t see them anywhere here in this blog.

Conversation #1

It was an exchange between me and a parent of a 14-year-old autistic teenager. The discussion was made through Facebook’s personal messaging. Apparently, the parent stumbled upon my previous post, The Credo of Team Awesomeness, and commented my use of identity-first language and wants me to use person-first language instead, to which something, to admit, I took offense. Here’s their message to me (I took the liberty of redacting names and correcting punctuations — otherwise, the message has been preserved verbatim):

Hi, Gerard. Hope you don’t mind. Regarding your post, you used “autistic individuals” and identify yourself as an autistic. Remember the person-first language we are advocating? The politically correct term to call or identify PWDs….

It should be persons/children/individuals with autism (PWA/CWA) and others.

Praying my son [name redacted] will also become a self-advocate like you. God bless.

Now don’t get me wrong — I am in cordial relations with the parent, having worked with them on certain projects. And I love the fact that they see me as a role model for their child to follow my footsteps. Still, it seems to me that they’re telling me, “Hey, ‘autistic’ is offensive. I’m just going to call you a ‘person with autism.’

Here was my response:

Hello, [name redacted]!

First up, I appreciate the fact that you contacted me.

I am looking forward to [name redacted] to follow our footsteps, and I’ll be happy to take him along if he so chooses.

With all due respect and love, though, I beg to differ on your argument. I do identify myself as an autistic individual because autism is part of my identity, and I believe it is the other of my fellow self-advocates would say the same thing.

While I understand the so-called “political correctness” and good intentions person-first language attempts to instill, my conviction is that “person with autism” implies that autism can be separated from our selves, which is not the case. It’s like saying I am a “person with Filipino nationality,” “person with brown eyes,” and “person with fluency in English,” among others, which in my opinion doesn’t make sense semantically or syntactically at all.

And I am deeply concerned that such language is being imposed on us autistic people without even making an effort of soliciting our preference of nomenclature. You may want to read my proposition on the debate between person-first and identity-first language: https://autisticbigbro.wordpress.com/2013/10/16/propose-before-you-impose/

If you, as a parent advocate, adhere to person-first language, I would respect your option. If it’s the policy of [name redacted], I will at least attempt to solicit the opinions of my fellow self-advocates on the issue and bring the results up to a body. But at this rate, I would rather stick to my preference.

As I have said in the aforementioned blog post, my sole advice to those who impose person-first language is, “Propose before you impose.” That’s my take on the issue.

I appreciate your opinion on the matter. God speed.

— Gerard

Right on. It took me an hour to think over what to write and how to answer, and this is the most subtle thing I was able to come up with. But then, they replied:

Well said. I wouldn’t argue on that if you yourself doesn’t mind calling or labeling yourself [as] autistic. Our point, or my point, is that we just want to focus and give more importance to the person himself and not on any condition/disability or characteristics.

But again, I don’t intend to argue about it. God bless.

Good night.

Well, it seemed they were expressing good intentions when they called out my usage of identity-first language. But the fact is, sometimes, even well-meaning names, especially those efforts for so-called “political correctness,” don’t work at all. And since it appears they were not intent on further discussion, I had these words to end:

Well, [name redacted], I appreciate your intentions very much, and I love you so much for that. No harm done, [name redacted] — I, on my part, just wanted to iterate my preference on the topic while offering my proposition. I don’t mean to open any argument as much as you don’t, but I’m just also giving my twenty-five centavos.

I would love to seeing you again in the nearer future. My regards to [name redacted]. God speed!

What do you guys think of this conversation? Leave a comment below.

But, wait, there’s more!

Conversation #2

This exchange happened on a Facebook group, where I posted the Propose Before You Impose link for sharing. This time, I was in with two different parties: a fellow self-advocate and a parent.

The self-advocate, who has been following my blog, commented on the post I made on that group (translations mine, and corrected for proper capitalization and punctuation):

Gerard Joseph Atienza, nagpaplano po kami na tulungan ang aming hometown sa Bohol na sinalanta ng lindol, especially our Loon SPED Center na may 5o pupils with autism. Alam mo lahat ng tao sa Bohol do not understand person with autism. Mas nakakarelate at nakakaintindi sila kapag ginagamit ang salitang “autistic” habang nakikipag-usap sila. Tayo, [ang] campaign natin, do not use the word “autistic.”

(Gerard Joseph Atienza, we are planning to help out out hometown at Bohol, which had been affected by the earthquake, especially our Loon SPED Center, which accommodated 50 pupils with autism. You know, everyone in Bohol do not understand persons with autism. They are more able to relate and understand when they use the word “autistic” in their daily conversations. Our part, though, we should not use the word “autistic.”

Now I was quite gobsmacked by their comment. I have no issue of them telling me that they are reaching out to the victims of the recent earthquake in Bohol, but I asked myself, “What are we talking about here? Have you even read my blog post?” And so, in an attempt to go back to topic and give them a chance to make their comment relevant to the topic, I replied:

[Name redacted] while I certainly appreciate that you are reaching out to the victims of the earthquake, I didn’t think you understood what the post meant. The post is meant to those who constantly ignore those who prefer identity-first language (“autistic person”) and force person-first language (“person with autism”) on them in addressing them. The word “autistic” by itself is pretty innocuous, but it has been marred by those who use it as an insult. I do not advocate against the use of the word “autistic,” but its use in a derogatory manner.

Now I never heard of any campaign to prevent the use of the word “autistic” as it is, but rather to help curb the negative use of such word. I expressed the points in my post, expressing concern for the imposition of person-first language without even consulting those whom they are addressing such nomenclature. I waited, and here was their response:

OO kasi we are a rural town. Sa mga relatives ko po doon, bago kasi sa pandinig ng mga tao doon ang salitang autism. Doon talaga sa lugar namin, matatanda man o maging bata, ang ginagamit ay mga salitang luma at ‘pag marinig natin nasasaktan tayo. Kaiba man sa atin na tayo ay lumaki sa mga urban center — ako, [sa] Davao City; ikaw, sa Bacoor na isang malaking siyudad din.

YES because we are [in] a rural town. Among my relatives, the word “autism” is something new to them. There, people of all ages use old words and when they do, we get hurt. It is quite different for us who grew up in the cities — I grew up in Davao City, while you grew up in Bacoor.

Upon reading the comment, I was like, “Have you even read my blog post?” Correct me if I’m wrong, but the comment looks irrelevant to me, if we are still in the topic. And the “OO” (“YES”) in all caps (in the Internet, all-caps means shouting) blew me away. Okay, I thought, we’re getting nowhere. Here’s my response:

You might want to read the full post first before you comment further, because it seems that your comment is veering away from the topic at hand. Here’s the link: https://autisticbigbro.wordpress.com/…/propose-before…/

I feel that the conversation was going nowhere from the topic I opened. I had to be straightforward at that point, because I can’t see the point. He then went:

I am sorry, Gerard, I know and understand [the] details. Naishare ko lang yan kasi in our hometown in Bohol. All the people there are unaware kung anong salita ang nararapat na gamitin person with autism ba o salitang autistic.

I am sorry, Gerard, I know and understand the details. I just shared this [topic] in our hometown in Bohol. All the people there are unaware on whether to use “person with autism” or “autistic.”

Apology accepted, I thought. I gave him my two cents on the conversation, hoping it’d help out next time:

Well, it won’t really hurt asking. That’s all what the post wants to say, because as I’ve observed, some advocates are using whatever they want without them asking first.

I thought that was over.

A few days later, the parent (who, by the way, happened to be my old mentor in the group) commented, and the comment blew me away:

Hi [name redacted]! on our part we just need to keep using “child/ person with autism” para masanay din ang publiko sa paggamit nito. Lalo pa ngayon laganap na ang mga usapin tungkol sa paglilinaw ng kalagayan at karapatan ng mga taong may autismo. Magandang marinig mula sa dumaraming mga tao, radio, TV and print media ang makataong paggamit ng katawagang ito. Ako nga pala si [name redacted], ina ng isang teen-ager na may autismo.

Hi, [name redacted]! On our part, we just need to keep using “child/person with autism” so the public gets used to it. Especially nowadays, there are discussions clarifying the status and the rights of people with autism. It is good to hear from an increasing number of people, and from the radio, TV, and print media the usage of this humane nomenclature. I am [name redacted], mother of a teenager with autism.

Whoa, I just said. This is what I was deeply concerned with. I wrote something that speaks out against the forced usage of person-first language, and the parent, whom I respected very much, was actually imposing person-first on us? Did they even read the breadth of my post? Why I am seeing this coming from them is beyond me.

And to keep myself from lashing out, I reply with the most respectful language I can possibly muster from my otherwise no-nonsense thought:

With all due respect, [name redacted], there are some who would rather opt to use “autistic” in preference to “child/person with autism,” because there is an implication in person-first language that autism can be removed from the child or the person, which is not the case. As I’ve said in my post, it won’t hurt to ask when addressing those on the spectrum.

The parent then turned to my fellow self-advocate, and said:

[Name redacted], you know, I like you because your language manners make me respect you so much Hope to meet you too sometime soon. Have a great day ahead!

Okay, maybe I look too straightforward to them. I’m not really into mincing my words, but rather delivering my thoughts as they are. The thing is, some people can’t take criticism well. (Okay, maybe I am guilty sometimes of the same offense, but I am working on it.) And that is the problem I see with them.

Anyway, I wanted to end the discussion, because it is being an overload to me, so I tried to end:

I agree with you on that, [names redacted] is a great person to talk with, and I look forward to meeting him in person.

I thought that was the end of it. But apparently, the parent took my points to the letter, and asked her non-verbal son my proposition. This comment left me gobsmacked:

I asked my son [name redacted] how he prefers to be called…. He answered “TE TE GUH GUH.”

As I’ve said, I was gobsmacked. And at the same time, a dilemma rose. I appreciated the attempt, but without augmentative and alternative means of communication, how can the guy respond to a question that is just being delivered in a way they won’t be able to respond to properly? Now I may pass as being ableist or something, but that is not what I am. I know the guy — as a matter of fact, he was one of my first real autistic friends, and he was like a brother to me.

I ended the discussion with an open-ended comment, and since I didn’t think we were going somewhere, I just said:

Well, I appreciated the effort done, and that is something I’d love to discuss with you soon.

The point of the post was a proposition on the debate of person-first vs identity-first nomenclature of autism, and giving us the option of whatever designation to use on our behalf, not just calling us whatever is the status quo. As I’ve said, the best option is simply calling us by name. In many cases, I call [name redacted] or any of my fellows just by their names.

My Insights

Seeing the conversations unfolding, it seemed that some parent advocates are attempting to keep the status quo of person-first language, which many self-advocates find unpleasant and redundant. My series of posts was made to challenge the status quo, and offer better alternatives. Apparently, my message is being drowned out. But that doesn’t mean I will give up on the debate.

All we need at this point is a voice of every self-advocate, every autistic individual here in the Philippines. Apparently, person-first language was imposed without even involving those autistic people who can speak out and comment.

I have other topics to discuss relevant to this post and the issues arising from these conversations, and I will discuss them as we move along. For now, autism advocacy in the Philippines has a long way to go, and self-advocacy is yet to rise. But we’re getting there.

Leave your comments below, and let me know what you think.

Autistic BigBro

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2 thoughts on “Person-First vs Identity-First: Debates

  1. I think the gap manifests in this: “Our point […] is that we just want to focus [on] the person himself and not on any condition/disability.”

    But I don’t see autism as only a disability. It makes some things harder for me, but it also makes some things very special and worthwhile. As long as people keep seeing autism as only a disability, they will continue to pity us, and treat us like subhuman.

    Nevertheless, I never engage in discussions about it. I always tell them that I’m not imposing my choice on them, so I would appreciate it if they didn’t impose their choice on me. To be frank, I have NEVER seen an identity first advocate tell a person first advocate that they SHOULD stop using person first language, the way person first advocates are always throwing around the word SHOULD. Please don’t tell me what I should call myself. It’s rude.

    1. I totally agree with you. My point in the nomenclature of autism has always been, and will always be “proposing before imposing.” And I am saddened that many advocates, specifically parents and professionals, are shoving their ideas on us without even asking us if that is what we wanted to be called. The objective of my blog is to present autism in its most awesome form, able to stand up for rights and acceptance, and challenge the status quo.

      However painful, overloading, and frustrating it could be, I need to address these issues and face the parties involved, because after all, this is about us. And I believe this is exactly what our fellows want to do, but for some reason, need further motivation.

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