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Letter to the Editor: Dear non-disabled people, Stop telling us how to describe ourselves

In the piece published on Oct. 29, “Person-first language essential for inclusion,” the author asserts that person-first language is the best way to include disabled folks in discourse. As a disability justice organization and disabled people ourselves, we strongly disagree with this broad and incorrect generalization and The Signal’s choice to allow a self-described non-disabled person to speak on disability issues.

As disabled students at TCNJ, we understand there is not one right way to talk about disability. The disability community is beautifully diverse and is comprised of individuals with many different preferences when it comes to language. Each individual has different preferences in terms of how they choose be described.  

This article, in stating that person-first language is “essential,” places this form of language above all else and invalidates the choices of individuals who prefer other types of language. While some members of the community may prefer person-first language, it is by no means the only option; in fact, the majority of the disability community actually favors identity first language.

The author of this article writes, “Person-first language is a practice that emphasizes a person’s identity rather than his or her disability.” But what if our disability is part of our identity? Identity first language refers to phrases such as, “I am Autistic” or, “I am a disabled woman.” Many people prefer this because it allows them to express our disabled identity. As members of Disability PRIDE, we believe that our disabilities are our strengths. We feel a great pride for our identities and our communities and we have a right to express that through our own self-identification.

The author writes that “person-first language separates people from their disabilities.” But the author fails to realize that maybe disabled people do not want to be separated from their disabilities.

Disability is part of who we are and that is not a bad thing.

One Disability PRIDE member, who chose to remain anonymous, said, “My disability is the most important part of my identity, and there is nothing wrong with that. I feel like the idea of separating disability from the person comes from non-disabled people’s discomfort with disability and their inability to see disabled people as people. We as a community recognize that disability is a beautiful and natural part of human diversity, not something to sweep to the side. I love being disabled, and to separate me from my disability would be to fundamentally erase who I am.” Another member writes, “I respect those who use person-first language but my personal view of it is you’re distancing yourself from your disability in a way. … I, and my close friends and mentors, prefer identity-first and see our disability as part of who we are and would never change it.”

Many people in the disability community dislike person-first language because it operates on the assumption that disability is a bad thing. For example, the author writes that the word “autistic” carries “historically adverse backgrounds.” By claiming that the word autistic is inherently offensive, the author implies that autism is inherently bad.

The author also equates disability with inability when she writes, “By branding people by their disability –– which is only a single part of their identity –– we are perpetuating the myth that individuals are simply the equivalent of what they are unable to do.” For so long, disabled advocates have fought against the notion that disability means inability. For many of us, our disability is actually a strength for us, not a barrier. Furthermore, the phrase “person-first language” insinuates that acknowledging someone’s disability inherently devalues that person’s humanity. We disagree; we believe that disability is a beautiful and natural part of the human experience.

Overall, neither person-first nor identity first language is inherently offensive or wrong. But what is offensive is non-disabled people telling us how to describe ourselves. That is exactly what that author does in this article. The author acknowledges that actually disabled individuals largely prefer identity first language, but then continues on to completely disregard these voices by writing that “although some self advocates argue otherwise, I think person-first language is respectful.” As a self described non-disabled person, the author has no right to speak over us on this issue. The disability community follows the mantra “Nothing About Us Without Us,” meaning that any conversations regarding disability should be led by individuals with disabilities themselves. Individuals with disabilities are experts in their own experiences and these perspectives cannot be replaced by any non-disabled people (yes, special education students, even you).

The issue of person-first language may not seem like a big deal, but it represents a bigger problem on campus. For many of us, hearing a non-disabled person tell us how to describe ourselves hits a nerve because it is a recurring issue on this campus.

One member who chose to remain anonymous, said, “There is an issue on this campus where nondisabled special education students and professors feel like they know everything about disability, and often use that to talk over disabled students. These students and professors fail to recognize that a lot of the “advocacy” and “inclusion”  work they are engaging in is actually incorrect, misguided, and even harmful to us.”

Disability PRIDE was created directly as a response to this issue, hoping to create a space where actually disabled students get to control the conversation about our own lives.

We, as disabled students, encourage non-disabled people to focus on listening to self-advocates and individuals with disabilities rather than speak over us. If you really want to call for inclusion, maybe begin with actually including disabled voices and opinions. We feel that The Signal was irresponsible in allowing a non-disabled person to write this article and we urge The Signal to reach out to disabled writers for future articles on the disability community.


The Students of Disability PRIDE


  1. I generally point out, as a disabled person, that if someone needs to use PFL to remember I am a human being they have some serious social issues, perhaps even deficits.


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