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The Isolating Effects of Language

Recently, I had a debate with an able-bodied friend over the use of person-first language rather than identity first language. He said that everyone should be using person-first language when interacting with people, and was almost even abhorred with the idea of using identity first language. As this debate happened on social media, it did gain some traction. I can tell you that he learned a lot that day. Perhaps you, Dear Reader, will learn something today as well.

Person-first language is a type of linguistic prescription (this is the attempt to establish rules defining a preferred or correct usage of language) where it puts a person before a diagnosis, describing what a person "has" rather than asserting what a person "is". Whereas identity first language places the identifying trait of that person first. For example, instead of saying “disabled people” which is identity first language, person-first language would be “people with disabilities”. Or instead of saying “She’s autistic” you’d say “She has autism”. Somehow, by putting the person first it recognises that they are human first before their abilities.

As a physically disabled and chronically ill person, I believe that person-first language is isolating and dehumanising, and that it caters to the comfort of abled people over disabled people. When I say isolating, I mean that by using person-first language you are separating people from their disability. But why would you separate something that defines who you are? My disability is central to my life. It affects everything I do, how I do things, where I go, and how I feel about myself. It’s not a negative thing. It makes me who I am, and I have adapted as much as I should when it comes to actually living life. Disabled is not a dirty word. It is simply who I am and I, along with others in the community, embrace that. Growing up, I realised that abled people love pushing the narrative of not letting a disabled person be “defined by their disability”. Because to them, disability is something lesser, something they do not want to be associated with, it makes them uncomfortable when they have to deal with it. But I am defined by my disability, it has shaped me to who I am today, and I am proud of that. I should not be ashamed of my disability and not being part of the “norm”; rather society should be ashamed that it still cannot accommodate other human beings and their basic rights.

So, would you go out of your way to describe someone by saying, for example, “a person who is European”? or “a person who is tall”? Or would you just say, “She’s European”? or “He’s tall”? Just like these are not offensive words, disabled isn’t either. Just like being European or tall, being disabled is a fact. Using person-first language when referring to disabled people implies that disabled people should not identify as such. It implies that disabled is a negative word, and it perpetuates the stigma associated with it. It is harmful, and in a world that is dominated by the able-bodied, there must be more work done to come to this realisation. I know that besides me, there are countless disabled kids struggling with internalised ableism because of how abled bodied people refer to us.

Another important thing to note is that it is ableist to assume that we [disabled people] all prefer person-first language. It is ableist to assume that disabled is a bad word. And it is ableist to insist that an able bodied person knows better than how a disabled person feels. One should always take care that in topics that surround disability, the opinions of said community should always outweigh those of able bodied people.

I suppose, what I’d like you to take away from this, Dear Reader, is to reflect on how you perceive disabled people. And that even the smallest things on the surface, such as the way you speak to someone, can significantly affect the stigma towards them.

By Ena Cintakinta Ivković

Ena is an Indonesian-Serbian second-year Law student, with a bundle of different passions - including but not limited to; video games, football, graphic design, activism, poetry, writing, and reading about Law! The Hague is full of intersectionality, and Ena was glad to find this present within the Collective team as she is most comfortable in the presence of diversity. She is involved in a few other student organizations at THUAS, hoping to strive and fulfill her greatest passion of all: helping and giving joy to others.


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