Person-first or identity-first language? The discussion isn't academic - Generocity Philly


Jul. 14, 2021 9:00 am

Person-first or identity-first language? The discussion isn’t academic

How someone prefers to be identified is based on their own past experiences, some of which may be very painful.

(Photo by Kindel Media from Pexels)

I have always had issues with my vision, and for most of my life, it was correctible. With fashionable glasses or sometimes contact lenses I blended in with the rest of the world and lived a fairly inconspicuous life.

But in 2011, I learned that the central vision loss I developed was uncorrectable. At the end of a routine visit, my retina specialist told me I was now legally blind and no longer able to drive. With that, he walked out of the room. For a long time I thought his bedside manner was rather lacking. In hindsight, I wonder if it was just as difficult for him to deliver that prognosis as it was for me to receive it.

I now have an incredibly supportive community of friends who are also blind or visually impaired and am a proud member of the largest and most legislatively active groups fighting for the rights of the blind. Over the last several years I have heard the National Federation of the Blind mantra, “blindness is not what holds you back.”

Yet, I still wanted to hide my condition.

In preparing for a recent trip, a friend strongly urged that I bring my white cane. I knew she was right and that it was unfair to unnecessarily burden her to constantly be my eyes, especially when I had a tool to help me. But inside, I cringed. The cat was out of the bag — no more hiding or blending in.

So, now add “the woman who walks with the white cane,” to my identity — exactly what I have tried to avoid for about 10 years.

I imagined overhearing a conversation of someone describing me to someone else. In this imaginary exchange, none of the other descriptions were clicking until reference was made to the white cane. And I did not like it.

But what does that suggest?

Does that describer need sensitivity training? Or do I have some internal work to do? Could I possibly be projecting my own insecurities onto others? Why are some of us so sensitive or offended by certain identifying terms?

Put simply, person versus identity language puts the individual first not a physical, medical, or psychological diagnosis or condition. Saying someone has autism emphasizes the person, while saying someone is autistic emphasizes the disability.

When speaking with Dr. Lucas Malishchak, director of the psychology office of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) for another article, I noticed his careful intention of using the term, “persons who are incarcerated” rather than inmates, prisoners or the incarcerated.

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Dr. Malishchak said the intention is based on the DOC’s “person-centered and strengths-based approach” to providing services. According to Dr. Malishchak, a person-first approach helps the department to deliver a diversity of psychological services and support. “It is also our attempt to eliminate any unintended or inadvertent marginalization or stigmatization, while not sacrificing the individual’s accountability or responsibility for their actions,” he added.

The Helen Keller National Center (HKNC) has grappled for decades with using the best identifier for members of its community. Last summer, it officially adopted the usage of “DeafBlind” replacing the many iterations over the years.

Christopher Woodfill, associate executive director at HKNC, who also identifies as Deafblind, said that for years he pushed for the change. Woodfill said it was only after a survey showed there was a consensus in the community, that the change was made.

Woodfill said DeafBlind recognizes a few things. Firstly, that it refers to a culture of people (hence the capitalization of the “d” and the “b.”) and not simply a medical condition. “We are a culture with our own language — which is primarily touch,” he said. Further, “DeafBlind” recognizes a singular, unique disability, not two separate conditions.

Of course, how someone prefers to be identified is based on their own past experiences, some of which may be very painful. There is group consensus as with the DeafBlind community but there is the individual’s decision that should not be dismissed even if it does not align with the group.

Dr. Malishchak noted that even though the DOC has taken its position, individuals are engaged in discussions of how they choose to be identified.

If I were to be brutally honest with myself, I would have to admit that any offense I take at being called, disabled, having a disability, visually impaired or having low-vision or the dreaded “lady with the white cane,” has little to do with the identifiers themselves. Sometimes identifiers offer clarification and are not meant to be harmful. Yet, I recognize that my story is not everyone’s story.

However what is everyone’s story is that we are all humans created with different and distinct purposes, regardless of our perceived ability or disability. Even in our very visually driven world, that is an inner truth I wish we would not lose sight of.


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