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.]
” disability is inseparable from humanity. We all have bodies that are diverse”
I love this whole article but especially the above bit. I think that when people say that we shouldn’t “see” differences, be they disability, race, gender, or anything else, that we lose out on an opportunity to learn from one another.
I am insanely lucky to have some incredibly diverse friends. I have friends who are gay, transgender, deaf, of different races and creeds than myself, and I love this. I myself have some mental illnesses, a chronic illness, am fat, and bisexual, so I like to think that I add to the interesting mix that we all make up! If we allow ourselves to go ahead and SEE the differences, then we can talk about them. I enjoy discussing the things that make us different, and how those differences affect our lives. It’s fascinating to learn the different ways each of us see and experience the world.
Without seeing and talking about our differences, I may never have learned about privilege and how it affects all of us. I wouldn’t have had a chance to examine my own privilege and what it means to me and others.
Seeing our differences, and talking about them, makes us all better citizens of the world, I think. Plus, it makes the world a whole lot less boring.
Thank you so much for your comments. Like you, I love difference. I’ve never understood people who fear it. In fact, I find homogeneous groups very, very problematic, because I like the kind of critique you can get in a more diverse group of people. It opens your mind to what is outside your own experience. To me, understanding how differently people experience the way the world is constructed is as important as understanding myself. If we don’t understand how the world really works, we can’t know how to meet human needs, heal human societies, and change the way we engage one another — any more than we can meet our own needs and heal our own pain and change the way we work with ourselves if we don’t look at who we are.
I came into disability as a special education teacher. I started in blindness, then into deafness. But even before that, I had friends who were blind. They were all find with the term “blind.” And there were others who preferred to be called “visually impaired.” As a teacher, I worked with both, and learned where some of difference in labels came from parents, some from reading media, and some from politics in the visually impaired community, none of which had anything to do with the “legal” definition of blindness.
When I got into deafness, I again found a community divided. There was the Deaf community and the hard of hearing community. The divide was both linguistic (sign language vs. spoken language) and cultural, but also by the practicality of what types of services they needed. They wanted to be called Deaf and hard of hearing.
The community with physical disabilities seems to be segmented into congenital and early onset on one side and adult onset, and can be seen in whether a person feels their disability is a part of who the are, part of their identity.
I have been active on advisory committees in several states, and spent over 30 years working with people who have “low incidence disabilities”: vision impairment, hearing impairment, and physical disabilities.
I do not speak for any individual or group, but I believe that my descriptions are valid. They come from clients, friends, and colleagues with a variety of conditions and causes of disability. For the most part, the push for “people first” language comes from people with other disabilities, those with developmental and severe-multiple disabilities.
As I have gone on to be an advocate and counselor, I try to remember who to call what. But the English language tends to put adjectives before nouns, and I will most often call someone blind or Deaf or hard of hearing, and I actively avoid using the term “with ____ (anything). I try to use the terms they use, and I find that how I treat my disabled friends, clients and colleagues has much more impact than what I call them. And for the most part, they were mostly proud of who they were!