Tuesday, 26 January 2016
I'm Disabled - On person-first language
I have been flip-flopping about this topic for a few years now, ever since I heard about person-first language. To be honest, I'm still not altogether sure where I stand on it. The debate has and will no doubt long continue within the disability community. Here are some of my thoughts, on it though. Forewarning though, this is a long one and pretty full-on and I get a bit academic in places but I promise you it's important info and I've done my best to make it easy to understand, so grab a cuppa and let's get stuck in!
But first, for those completely in the dark about what the hell I'm on about: Person-first language is a concept I only heard of comparatively recently, where it is considered important to put the person first and their disability second when you speak of or about them. In other words, they are a 'person with a disability' as opposed to a 'disabled person'. The sentiment behind it is that you are acknowledging their person-hood primarily, and not centring their identity on their disability. This same sentiment comes with comments like 'you are not your disability', 'you are more than your disability' or more problematically: 'I don't even see you as disabled' or 'I don't even see your disability'. While I bought into this like a lot of disabled folks, I am seeing more and more how problematic person-first language can be.
This article goes some way to address the issues with person-first language, particularly in that it echoes the medical model of disability which sees all disabilities as an affliction to be 'fixed'. It centres on the idea that disability is separate and detracts from a person's humanness, Therefore acknowledging the disability first suggests that you don't see them as human or see nothing but their disability. Obviously this makes it somewhat ableist despite best intentions. It follows the notion of able-bodied being the norm and those not meeting that norm are lesser. Let's be clear on this: disabled people are not full human beings IN SPITE of their disabilities, they are full human beings PERIOD. Person-first language is in a sense erasure of part of someone's identity by refusing to acknowledge how disability can be an integral part of a person's identity whether they are happy about it or not. I would be a completely different person were I not disabled. The erasure is problematic in that it washes your hands of any responsibility to make any concessions or accommodations to make things easier for them and puts the onus on the disabled person to either try and find their own ways to adjust or alter themselves (often to the detriment of their own health) to conform to society's standards or be left behind.
In contrast, the social model of disability involves reclaiming the word 'disabled' and acknowledging that disability is a legitimate part of a person's core identity and that doesn't make them any less of a person. The social model follows that people may have impairments, but are disabled by society in that they are prevented from functioning fully as a citizen by socially constructed obstacles such as discrimination, prejudice, lack of understanding, access issues, and so on. If you look at Stephen Hawking, there is a strong case for this. He isn't inhibited from achieving much with his impairments as he's got public credibility and respect, and is able to afford all sorts of technology and equipment to overcome the obstacles that others with his condition would be faced with.
There are of course limits and problems with this concept too. Some disabilities can be 'fixed' and many can be reduced or minimised with medical intervention, which can give long term gains for the person concerned. However, my main issue while still being more in favour of the social model, is that social change is a slow process. I do actively involve myself in advocating for a more inclusive and accessible society for all, but these are very BIG goals and I am keenly aware that I may not see great progress even in my lifetime. In the meantime, we are otherwise left to either try and adapt to fit in, or sit bitterly in self-pity and blame society. For the record, I do blame society for a lot of things that cause eternal frustrations for people like myself, but like most of us, I do just get on with my life. It would however make our lives much easier if EVERYONE prescribed to the social model of disability and took it upon themselves to make changes to their own attitudes and behaviours and to our community environment.
I think the reason the debate is so strong within the disability community mostly comes down to personal feelings within themselves about their own disability. While some are proud of their disability identity, others may simply be apathetic about it, and others may really struggle and have very negative feelings towards it, particularly those with chronic pain and such, or those with foreboding prognoses. Those who see their disabilities in a very negative light would probably be more inclined to favour the person-first language. Others who favour person-first language may be struggling with internalised ableism (I know I was!)
It would be easy to write the debate off as a semantic argument, but the notions behind it are important and relevant. I tend to use both 'person with a disability' (or PWD for short) and 'disabled person' interchangeably mostly for grammatical variety, but I am definitely more favourable to the social model. The debate rages on and I don't have any more answers than the next person. These are my thoughts though, feel free to share your own in the comments below!