It has long been assumed that person-first language (PFL) is the most politically correct and appropriate way to refer to those who were once called handicapped, crippled, challenged, infirm, etc.
The concept first appeared in 1988 amongst advocacy groups in the United States, who wanted to fight back against the stigma generated by a society that didn't strive for equality or accessibility, but saw disability as dehumanising and dismissing of personhood.
The movement encouraged the use of phrases that put the person first, i.e 'woman who is deaf' 'boy with autism'. Soon PFL was adopted as standard linguistic rule. Professionals from doctors to teachers to journalists to government officials were all told that they should only use PFL. It became unacceptable to use a term such as 'disabled person.' To this day, disabled people are themselves called out or attacked over not 'putting the person first.'
The idea was to ‘See the person first’ or ‘See the person – not the disability!’ Though PFL is designed to promote respect, the concept is based on the idea that disability is something negative, something that you shouldn’t want to see or identify with. As a result, PFL sparked a countermovement in linguistics, known as Identity-First Language (IFL).
In the ideology of identity-first, “disabled” is a perfectly acceptable way for a person to identify and there is no need to go out of your way to disassociate a person from a part of them, which shapes who they are and thus cannot possibly be separated from them. Critics have also described people-first language as awkward, repetitive and that it makes for tiresome writing and reading.
The National Federation of the Blind adopted a resolution in 1993 condemning PFL. The resolution dismissed the notion that "the word 'person' must invariably precede the word 'blind' to emphasize the fact that a blind person is first and foremost a person" as "totally unacceptable and pernicious" and resulting in the exact opposite of its purported aim, since "it is overly defensive, implies shame instead of true equality, and portrays the blind as touchy and belligerent". Jernigan, Kenneth (March 2009)
In Deaf culture, PFL has long been rejected. Instead, Deaf culture uses Deaf-first language since being culturally deaf is a source of positive identity and pride. Lum, Doman (2010)
Despite several disability advocacy groups loudly championing IFL, neglecting to use PFL is largely met with confusion, anger or offence from non-disabled people or those harbouring internalised ableism. For many, PFL is all that they know. It’s drilled into people’s minds, often in the form of generally well-intentioned sensitivity trainings and educational literature, as the only possible means to be respectful. Challenging this mindset is often met with cognitive dissonance, and often, professionals see their education as giving them the qualification to speak for disabled people.
Not all disabled people chose to use IFL, but it is the preference of the majority within the autistic community (as shown in the N.A.S 2015 research paper). Despite this, PFL is still the form that is praised, promoted and defended, whist the wishes of actually autistic people are drowned out and ignored.
Without necessarily intending to, PFL implies that “disability”, “disabled” or “autistic” are negative, derogatory words, making it seem as though being disabled is something of which you should be ashamed.
“Person-first language essentially buys into the stigma it claims to be fighting’’. - Emily Ladau
A brief History of Identity-First Language
Blind advocate Kenneth Jernigan speaking.