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Identity First Language

What is identity-first language? 

Identity first language is a way to emphasis important aspects of a person’s identity. This type of language involves stating a descriptor of a person first to signify that this characteristic or descriptor is an integral part of their identity, and this should be emphasised. For example, autistic person or disabled person. This is different to person first language which introduces a person before adding any descriptor or characteristic. For example, person with cancer or a person who is deaf.  

Person-first language is encouraged in a wide variety of contexts in order to avoid defining someone solely by their disability or condition. But not everyone prefers this language. Others prefer identity-first language to emphasise a part of their identity that they consider very important. Identity-first language is not often used outside of the disabled community and opinions are still mixed as to if this is the best use of language. 


Why is identity-first language important? 

Identity-first language is important because it conveys a disability as a permanent and essential part of someone’s identity. Particular communities like the autistic, deaf and blind communities view their disabilities as a fundamental element of who they are. So, it is important to give all individuals the opportunity to define themselves in the way that best fits their identity. 

For many communities, it is extremely important to them that identity-first language is used. There are people who have fought hard to have the correct language used when they are talked with or referred to. One example of a group who prefers identity-first language is the autistic community. They want people to use identity-first language to reduce stigma and to emphasise that it is an important aspect of who they are. 

However, there can be cons to using identity-first language. This type of language use can lead people to believe that a person’s disability completely defines them as an individual. This can be problematic when people have negative stereotypes about disabilities. One example of these negative stereotypes is that autistic people lack empathy.  


Why do people prefer person-first language? 

Some people argue that having the disability at the forefront of one’s identity destigmatises the disability. Having a disability is not the only important aspect of a person, but it is no less important than a person’s gender identity, race, sexuality, religion or any other part of who they are.   

Person-first language is preferred in many contexts, particularly medical care so as to view the person in a more wholistic way and not have their disability or condition define them. However, individual preferences around identity-first versus person-first language vary widely. The optimal approach is to respect people’s choices about the language they choose for themselves. 



Preferred language use varies from person to person and from different forms of ability. Language preferences can change over time depending on many factors. The most important takeaway is that we must always respect individual language choices and make a conscious effort to refer to people in the way that validates their identity and experiences. 

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