In the disability world, it is not unusual to hear the expression, “See the person, not the disability.” I rather cringe at this construction — in the same way that I rather cringe when people talk about colorblindness and race. Why this insistence on ignoring what is palpably there? Why ignore any attribute of a human being?
The idea that one has to choose between seeing the person and seeing the disability has never made a lot of sense to me. My response has been to reframe it as follows:
See BOTH the person AND the disability. Because there is nothing dehumanizing or shameful about a disability.
My rewriting speaks to the heart of the problem with person-first language and its insistence on turns of phrase like “person with disabilities” rather than the identity-first language of “disabled person.” Such language betrays the assumption that disability renders one less of a person. If that assumption were not present, there would be no reason to foreground the fact that we really, really, really are people, and that one has to put the disability aside in order to see how really, really, really human we are. Of course, that rather problematic logic begs the question: How exactly does one pretend not to see a disability once it has made itself known? In most contexts, that would be called denial.
Hidden inside person-first language is the assumption that being a person means being able-bodied. After all, if I’m a “person with disabilities,” and you don’t look at the disabilities, then what I am without them? I’m able-bodied. Why? Because the very definition of able-bodied is to be without disability. Without the construct of disability, the word “able-bodied” would have no meaning at all.
I want to make clear that I am not against the use of person-first language. For the sake of variety in my writing, I sometimes use it, and I don’t mind it when others do. I don’t feel particularly inclined to interfere with the decisions that disabled people make regarding self-identification. To me, whether a disabled person self-identifies as differently abled, or a person with disabilities, or disabled matters not at all. I can argue the merits and the implications of different kinds of language, but if I’m talking with people who consider themselves differently abled, and that turn of phrase helps them move with some modicum of power and self-esteem through a world that considers them of lesser worth, I will respect where they are in their process, and I will address them as they wish to be addressed.
So it is not so much person-first language that I object to as the insistence, in some quarters, that people should always use person-first language, and that it is always more respectful than identity-first language. When I first set up my Autism and Empathy site, for example, one reader told me, quite vehemently and angrily, that I absolutely should not use the term autistic, that it was dehumanizing, and that I should always say person with autism; she was quite upset with me when I used the terms interchangeably. I do not feel that person-first language is good or bad, in and of itself. My feeling is that the rationale for its sole use as a respectful means of address perpetuates the idea that there is something shameful and dehumanizing about disability. It’s that particular way of looking at disability that needs addressing.
When all is said and done, the slogan of “See the person, not the disability,” is based on the premise that disability can be separated from the person, leaving only that person’s humanity. The problem with this line of reasoning, of course, is that disability is inseparable from humanity. We all have bodies that are diverse, that are created in ways beyond our control, that change without our consent, and that are vulnerable to age, to accident, to illness, and to all of the contingencies of life. So if you want to see the whole person, look carefully at the disability, because that is where a core feature of our humanity lies.[Headline image: The photograph shows a young brown-haired white girl with Down Syndrome looking away from the camera and smiling in a three-quarter view.]