Why I dislike Person First language

Volume 1. No. 2

Why I dislike Person First language

 

October 28, 2013

By Jim Sinclair

 

Abstract:

Originally published on the authors web site in 1999 this article still provides an antidote to the often prescribed use of people first language. The article belongs in Autonomy as a constant source of reference to all future authors and subscribers.


 

Why I dislike Person First language

By Jim Sinclair

I am not a person with autism. I am an autistic person. Why does this distinction matter to me?

1) Saying person with autism suggests that the autism can be separated from the person. But this is not the case. I can be separated from things that are not part of me, and I am still be the same person. I am usually a person with a purple shirt, but I could also be a person with a blue shirt one day, and a person with a yellow shirt the next day, and I would still be the same person, because my clothing is not part of me. But autism is part of me. Autism is hard-wired into the ways my brain works. I am autistic because I cannot be separated from how my brain
works.

2) Saying person with autism suggests that even if autism is part of the person, it isnt a very important part. Characteristics that are recognized as central to a persons identity are  appropriately stated as adjectives, and may even be used as nouns to describe people: We talk about male and female people, and even about men and women and boys and girls, not  about people with maleness and people with femaleness. We describe peoples cultural and religious identifications in terms such as Russian or Catholic, not as person with Russianity or person with Catholicism. We describe important aspects of peoples social roles in terms such as parent or worker, not as person with offspring or person who has a job. We describe  important aspects of peoples personalities in terms such as generous or outgoing, not person first language as person with generosity or person with extroversion.Yet autism goes deeper than culture and learned belief systems. It affects how we relate to others and how we find places in society. It even affects how we relate to our own bodies. If I did not have an autistic brain,  the person that I am would not exist. I am autistic because autism is an essential feature of me as a person.

3) Saying person with autism suggests that autism is something badso bad that is isnt even consistent with being a person. Nobody objects to using adjectives to refer to characteristics of a person that are considered positive or neutral. We talk about left-handed people, not people with left-handedness, and about athletic or musical people, not about people with athleticism or people with musicality. We might call someone a blue-eyed person or a person with blue eyes, and nobody objects to either descriptor. It is only when someone has decided that the  characteristic being referred to is negative that suddenly people want to separate it from the person. I know that autism is not a terrible thing, and that it does not make me any less a person. If other people have trouble remembering that autism doesnt make me any less a person, then thats their problem, not mine. Let them find a way to remind themselves that Im a person, without trying to define an essential feature of my personhood as something bad. I am autistic because I accept and value myself the way I am.

Jim Sinclair.

 

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