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Going Beyond the Argument Surrounding the Use of Identity-First Language

There has been much debate in various disability/disorder communities surrounding the use of language, particularly to describe affected individuals.

We are, more and more, seeing a move towards what is called “person-first language.” That is, rather than using “identity-first” language, and directly saying that someone is affected by a handicap (is autistic, blind, or deaf, for example) or otherwise implying the direct effects of a handicapping condition, we remove that label in favor of language that is more neutral (“person who has autism,” “person who has impaired vision / can’t see,” “person who is hard-of-hearing or unable to hear”).

The goal of this move is to recognize the value of the person, and help them separate themselves from the condition so that they may better recognize their self-worth. Saying someone “has autism,” or is “a person who has autism,” for example, instead of “is autistic,” is thought to emphasize their humanity. It places the individual in front of the condition, and is seen as removing the label and/or stereotype of that condition from them.

I understand this point of view, and, as someone interested in linguistics, I applaud individuals on both sides of the debate for showing concern about their use of English. Our use of language is important. Words can have power, if we let them. Words work wonders at winning wars, and can prevent them, as well. Words affect people; they form belief systems, change behaviors, and ultimately, give us our ability to communicate. However, people often give too much power to the words of others, and I think that is what is happening with this argument. We’re spending too much time on something that is ultimately a matter of personal preference, time we could instead use to educate people on topics related to disorders and disabilities. We need to go beyond this debate, and focus on what’s really important.

For individuals affected by disorders and disabilities, the recognition of essential humanity, self-worth, and intrinsic value lies not in language, but in being comfortable with and able to identify with their condition. If someone prefers their condition be referenced in a certain way, that’s their choice, and it should be respected. The important thing is that they are happy with who they are as individuals. If they are, then whether they “have” a disorder or disability, or it is referenced in some other way is irrelevant.

I am a person who has autism, and at the same time, I am also autistic. The language involved doesn’t bother me because I recognize that autism is part of who I am, and am content with that. Disorders and disabilities are features that make people who they are, just as much as eye or skin color. But, they don’t define the individual. If a person is unable to walk, or is deaf, blind, or autistic, or is handicapped in some other way, they can still be successful in life – regardless of the words people use to reference them. It is all about attitude and perspective, and the realization that words only have as much power as we give them.

If someone has a disability or disorder and is struggling to recognize their self-worth and value, that’s what needs fixing. We, as a society, need to recognize this and change our priorities to better help these individuals. If we each work on recognizing our own value and worth, as well as that of others, language is no longer a problem.

Published inAutismDisabilitiesDisordersEducationLearning


  1. Kim Kim

    I am always proud of what you write and what you do, but this…Wow! Very powerful message.. I hope many see, read and share it. Grateful you are in this world, not just for me, but for the future of many.

  2. McGranma McGranma

    All I can say Matt, is you are the man of the hour. You are an inspiration to anyone that reads this article. You have come such a long way, but you have a long and interesting life ahead of you to look forward to. Keep up the wonderful articles and doing the things you truly enjoy in life and you will go as far as you desire. I am so proud to be one of your grandmothers. I love you and wish you only the best forever.

  3. Sandy Major Sandy Major

    Matt, I have family, as well as close friends , that would benefit for this information. I have a very close friend, unlike me who relates better with language, is better with putting words on to paper. I love the pointe that you’re making . I sooo agree , no matter what disorders we all may have, we have so much to offer. This is a well written paper, & I hope you don’t mind if I share. Thank you so much…. Sandy

  4. Sarah Helms Sarah Helms

    Matt,, I have known your family since you were a wee tot in our church nursery.
    Being the grandmother of an autistic child, I so appreciate your message. I am thrilled with the wisdom you have garnered during your life. I, too, am thankful for a family who has stood with you and seen that you were exposed to much
    Knowledge. I pray the best for you in the future.

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