Below is a recent editorial corner from Palaestra concerning the use of language for scientific writing in adapted physical activity.
Person-first v Identity-first language
Like many journals that focus on disability issues, Palaestra has always asked authors to use “person-first language.” Person-first language is designed to recognize disability as only one small aspect of the person; it suggests that disability does not have to define a person. Person-first language acknowledges the individual as a person instead of a disability or condition; it emphasizes the unique value and worth of the person instead of the broad categorization of a disability label (Brown, 2015). For example, in person-first language an intellectual disability is viewed as one aspect of a person. This person may have many other attributes such as being tall or short, being blond or brunette, loves baseball or loves football, loves watching TV or loves reading books, loves pizza or loves hamburgers, etc. Having an intellectual disability is just one of many characteristics that defines a person. As a result, we use the term “person with an intellectual disability” to communicate that this is a person first, and the intellectual disability is just one aspect of this person’s persona. The exception has always been the Deaf community who view themselves as a culture of and by themselves. They are proud of being deaf and being part of the deaf culture, and they believe deafness is one of if not the most important aspect of their lives. As a result, for many years they have preferred the nomenclature of “Deaf person” as opposed to person-first language of “a person with a hearing impairment.”
Recently there has been a new push for “identify-first language,” particularly in the autism community. Self-advocates and their supporters prefer terminology such as “Autistic,” “Autistic person,” or “Autistic individual,” because they believe autism as an inherent part of an individual’s identity. They argue identify-first language with disability is no different than referring to someone’s race (e.g., African-American; Native-American), religion (Muslim, Jewish), gender/sexual identity (Lesbian/Gay/ Bisexual/Transgender/Queer), or cultural heritage (e.g., Chinese, Latin American) (Brown, 2015; Sinclair, 1999). Those who prefer identify-first language do understand that many parents of children with autism as well as professionals who work with children with autism still prefer people first language (i.e., child with autism), because they do not consider autism to be part of an individual’s identity and do not want their children to be identified or referred to as “Autistic.” They want “person” placed before any identifier such as “autism,” in order to emphasize the humanity of their children (Brown, 2015).
However, Brown argued that person-first language suggests the individual “… can be separated from autism, which she argues simply isn’t true. It is impossible to separate a person from autism, just as it is impossible to separate a person from the color of his or her skin…. Ultimately what we are saying when we say ‘person with autism’ is that the person would be better off if not Autistic, and that it would have been better if he or she had been born typical. We suppress the individual’s identity as an Autistic person, because we are saying that autism is something inherently bad like a disease. Yet, when we say ‘Autistic person,’ we recognize, affirm, and validate an individual’s identity as an Autistic person. We recognize the value and worth of that individual as an Autistic person — that being Autistic is not a condition absolutely irreconcilable with regarding people as inherently valuable and worth something.” Brown’s view is part of a newer movement in which “Autistic individuals” define themselves by their autism and view their autism as a uniquely positive attribute. Many advocates in the autism community are proponents of the concept of “neurodiversity” suggesting that diverse neurological conditions such as autism should be viewed as natural human variations rather than a pathology or disorder (Silberman, 2015). Temple Grandin is an example of someone who is proud of her autism and speaks passionately of how her autism gives her the unique ability to “think in pictures.” She often notes that her success in the field of animal science (she has a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois and is a well-known in the field of ethical treatment of animals in livestock farming) is due to her autism and her ability to look at things through the eyes of animals. (Grandin, 1996).
So, how should we refer to people with disabilities? Should we use person-first or identify-first language? For Palaestra, I would prefer we continue to use person-first language unless the authors have good reason to use identify-first language. Most of the papers we receive are written about individuals with disabilities, and it seems to me that identifying their person first rather than their disability is appropriate. On the other hand, a person with disability who writes about his/her own experiences certainly would warrant identify-first language. For example, I would be happy to see a paper using identify-first language written by an Autistic person who describes his experiences in a recreation program. Duncan (2011), the father of a son with autism, suggest a different approach altogether.
Most autistics, who are ‘people with autism’ don’t care. Actually, they’d prefer you call them by their name. They’re more likely to respond, that way. Furthermore, person, people, person of humanitarian decent … whatever. I think it really doesn’t much matter. Most parents of autistic children, who are children with autism … I think they don’t care, either. Again, using their child’s name is generally the best option. But those parents probably don’t mind how you refer to their children so long as you do it politely, nicely, and with respect. I fall into the “I don’t care” group myself, though I actually do care: if someone tells me they prefer one label or the other, I’ll do my best to respect their wishes. But if that person is in a group of people, all of whom have various wishes, or don’t care … well, get ready for a mixed bag of terminology. When and if my son is able to tell me he prefers one label or the other, you can bet I’ll stick to that term. I’ll still use another term with another person, if that’s what that person prefers. And unless I’m told otherwise, I’ll use the term that best fits the sentence. Because “the journey of my autistic child” sounds far better than “the journey of my child who has autism.”
Brown, L. (2015). Identity-First Language. Retrieved from http://autisticadvocacy.org/home/about-asan/identity-first-language/
Duncan, S. (2011). The Last Word on “Person First” Language. Retrieved from
Grandin, T. (1996). Thinking in pictures: Other reports from my life with autism. New York: Vintage Books.
Silberman, S. (2015). Neuro Tribes: The legacy of autism and the future of neurodiversity. Avery.
Sinclair, J. (1999). Why I dislike “person first” language. Retrieved from