Person-First Vs. Identity-First Language for Discussing Disabilities

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There are two schools of thought regarding the most respectful and appropriate way to refer to or describe disabled people. These ideas, described as person-first and identity-first, both evolved from self-advocacy movements within the disabled community.

The "person first" approach started in Sweden and came out of the need to gain a voice within the general community, particularly during the process of deinstitutionalization during the 1970s. The "identity first" movement is more recent and originated with the Deaf community. Identity-first language draws from the idea that neither disability nor neurodiversity is separable from a person's way of experiencing and interacting with the world. The choice of language depends, in part, on the individual person's age, their preferences, and their specific disability.

Some organizations and governmental groups such as the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), advocate for the use of person-first language. But this doesn't negate the importance of those disabled voices for whom identity-first language is preferred. Ahead, learn the difference between the two types of language, when each is appropriate, and how to know which to use in conversation in your own life.

What Is Person-First Language?

Person-first language is phrasing that puts the person ahead of the disability. It can be used in a sentence in the following ways:

  • “John is a student with learning disabilities who enjoys playing basketball.”        
  • “Jameel is a person with autism who has a talent for writing software.”        
  • “Fatima is a teen with epilepsy who won an award for her art.”

Person-first language is not new. It was first developed in Sweden in the 1960s as part of the People First movement. People First was a self-advocacy movement, created in response to a parents’ group with the motto “We Speak for Them,” and included disabled adults who wanted to speak for themselves.

The organization soon expanded to Canada and the United States. Some of the most important events associated with People First were conferences at which self-advocates were—for the first time—given opportunities to speak for themselves, share ideas, and make connections with one another.

Before the 1970s, most people with significant disabilities were institutionalized. During the 70s, however, the deinstitutionalization movement saw individuals with a wide range of disabilities join the general community. The process, however, was made more difficult because of stigma and harmful stereotypes, says Kathie Snow, author and creator of the Disability Is Natural website. "These people had been pushed out of society," Snow adds. "People used the term 'wrong' to describe disabilities. People were deemed worthy or unworthy of living based on their labels, and this helped to fuel the eugenics movement.”

Since the 1990s, person-first language has been encouraged in most settings as a "respectful" way to refer to people with disabilities. For example,The People First Respectful Language Modernization Act of 2006 was enacted by the Council of the District of Columba on July 11, 2006 to “require the use of respectful language when referring to people with disabilities in all new and revised District laws, regulations, rules, and publications and all internet publications.”

What Is Identity-First Language?

Identity-first language uses the name of a disability to describe an individual, rather than using the phrase “a person with.” Below are some examples:   

  • Eleanor, a blind woman, is a member of the homeowners association.    
  • George, who is Deaf, leads his company in sales.    
  • My autistic son enjoys playing video games.

Identity-first language is used most often by neurodiverse self-advocates and by members of the Deaf community. Bela Gaytan, instructional designer and DEIA (diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility) advocate, explains, “For some time, identity-first language was shunned by many in the disability community.  Many people felt that it implied that they were their disability before anything else. However, there's been a surge lately in people using identity-first language.  It’s been reclaimed as a source of pride and power.”

Cathy Wassell, CEO of Autistic Girls Network Charity in the UK, is neurodivergent and explains, “I’m firmly in the identity-first camp.” She cites several studies which found that autistic people, in particular, prefer identity first language. “Autism isn’t a handbag; you can’t pick it up or put it down," Wassell adds. "It’s a part of you, how you experience the world, how you react to things.”

Many people discover their autistic identity as adults; for some, the discovery comes as a result of a child’s diagnosis. For this group of people, self-identification as autistic can open up new horizons. “For their whole lives, these adults might have believed themselves to be broken neurotypical people—but in fact, they have a different neurotype," Wassell explains. "It’s important in terms of validation: I’m not a broken neurotypical person, I’m autistic.”

Choosing Between Identity-First and Person-First Language

Language is always changing, and no group of people is ever a monolith. There are, however, a few general rules to follow when it comes to discussing disabilities.

As Gaytan puts it, “When addressing another person directly, always ensure you are using the language that they prefer.  If you don’t know what they prefer, it’s okay to ask. As a rule of thumb, you’re safer to use person-first language over identity-first language, as some people still may
take offense to have their disabilities before their personal information.”

When you are writing or speaking about disabled people other than yourself or your own self-advocacy group, check to see whether the organization or community has a style guide that includes direction on language. If they do, you can simply follow it.

If you are not sure which option to use because you're not speaking directly to a disabled person or writing for a publication, you will need to make a choice on your own. As a rule, non-disabled people are accustomed to hearing person-first language, and it's thought to be a safer choice for a general audience. Certain groups of disabled self-advocates, however, in particular the Deaf, blind, and autistic communities, are very definite about preferring identity-first language.

A Word From Verywell

On any given topic, language is always a moving target. The "correct" terms of ten years ago can become the insults of today, and people may not always keep up with changing terminology. It's always best, when speaking with any individual, to ask how they preferred to be addressed or described. And ideally, it's best to inform yourself about the preferences of a particular group. But no matter how careful you are, it's impossible to get it right 100% of the time. The best thing you can do is be open minded and willing to listen, understand, and make adjustments wherever you can.

11 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  5. People First. Our Mission.

  6. Harvard Law School Project on Disability. Reckoning with the History of Institutions for Persons with Disabilities in Massachusetts.

  7. Council of the District of Columbia. D.C. Law 16-305. People First Respectful Language Modernization Act of 2006.

  8. Botha, M., Hanlon, J. & Williams, G.L. Does language matter? Identity-first versus person-first language use in autism research: A response to Vivanti. J Autism Dev Disord (2021).

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Additional Reading

By Lisa Jo Rudy
Lisa Jo Rudy, MDiv, is a writer, advocate, author, and consultant specializing in the field of autism.

Originally written by Ann Logsdon

Ann Logsdon is a school psychologist specializing in helping parents and teachers support students with a range of educational and developmental disabilities.

Learn about our editorial process