I saw an article and brief discussion today on the use of person-first (e.g. “people with disabilities”) vs descriptor-first (e.g. “disabled people”) language. As someone with a physical disability myself, I have a lot of thoughts on this topic. Originally I was going to comment on the discussion, but then my comment got pretty long, so I thought I’d type it up as a blog post instead.

Basically, I do not care at all which one out of “disabled people” or “people with disabilities” people use. (I do dislike “people experiencing disability” though; that one seems extremely twee.) I use person-first and descriptor-first terms interchangeably myself. I feel like people who get all high and mighty and insist on person-first language do so because they feel like being disabled actually is something to be embarrassed about (whether they recognise it or not). It screams of “But you’re MORE than your disability!” – like yeah, of course I am, but I’m not ashamed of being disabled either; I don’t feel the need to minimise it. I don’t think it’s surprising either that the vast majority of people who insist on “person-first” language seem to be able-bodied themselves (with most of the remainder being people who were born able-bodied, and only became disabled later in life – I think this makes a difference). Basically, I think these people are insisting on this kind of person-first language as a way to soothe their own negative feelings about disability. It is not actually objectively important.

What I think is much more problematic than descriptor-first language could ever be is people who use “disabled people” or “people with disabilities” when what they mean is some specific subset of people with disabilities. Sometimes this is the result of open ableism, but other times it’s just people being too scared to plainly state what they’re actually talking about, because they think it’s somehow “rude” to name any specific limitations (which again, is the result of the ableist belief that being disabled actually is something to be embarrassed about). Some of the examples of comments I’m talking about would be:

  • “You should use alt text so people with disabilities can know what your images are” – most people with disabilities are not using screen-readers, so instead maybe say “people who use screen-readers”.
  • “How is a disabled person supposed to get up these steps? There should be a ramp!” – most disabilities do not prevent people from walking. Instead maybe say something like “how is someone in a wheelchair, or with other mobility issues, supposed to get up these steps”.
  • “People with disabilities are now eligible for their next Covid booster shot” – from round to round the eligibility criteria has changed, but it’s never actually been “anyone with a disability”. Some of the more accurate things journalists could have said would be “NDIS participants” or “immunocompromised people” or “people with specific medical conditions – check the website for more details”.
  • “Children with disabilities need integration aides to help them thrive at school” – I mean some do, for sure, but not all disabilities require or benefit from the presence of an integration aide. When I was a kid my parents applied for me to have one, and I was mortified because I absolutely did not need one at all – I was fine socially and academically, and I didn’t have any mobility challenges at school either; I felt like they were trying to say I was “less than” the able-bodied kids despite my being top of my class. I do know it’s tricky to be specific about what kinds of disabilities warrant an integration aide, but this sentence would be better even if you just said “some children with disabilities”.
  • “People with disabilities can work just as hard as anyone, but employers won’t give us a chance!” – many disabilities actually do limit working hours or productivity or what specific tasks someone can carry out, and we don’t want a situation where people who actually can’t work full-time like able-bodied people get shamed for being “lazy” or “unproductive” (because “you’re just using your disability as an excuse!”) any more than already happens. It’d probably be better to say “Many people with disabilities are capable of working in ways that employers won’t give us a chance to demonstrate”, or something like that.
  • “Parents of children with disabilities are saints! I don’t even want kids because I’d be terrified of popping one out with a disability!” – so this is shitty in a couple of ways, of course. Firstly, even kids with high care needs are not “burdens” the way this statement frames it; they’re actual human beings and beloved members of their families. Caring for someone with high needs can certainly be exhausting and damaging to carers’ mental health, but this is the fault of our capitalist society that refuses to accommodate disabled people adequately and tries to fob off as much care work as possible onto unpaid relatives, not the fault of the people with such needs themselves. The parents of high-needs kids aren’t “saints”, they’re just doing the job of a good parent. (Also, some of them aren’t that good, fyi. But I’m sure the majority do their best.) Then the second way it’s shitty is that, of course, the person can’t even explicitly say “children with extremely high care needs”. They just say “disabled children” as if all disabilities result in high care needs! Many don’t! Many disabilities are extremely mild, especially if managed well, and might require some extra medical appointments or meetings with the school or suchlike, but are very easily manageable and not some big limitation on that child’s ability to achieve future success or live a good life. Assuming that every disability is some kind of “worst-case scenario” just increases ableism.
  • “I could never date someone with a disability!” – I mean, I can understand being reluctant to date someone with specific care needs if you think they’re beyond you (although hopefully, if you have a partner becomes disabled in such a way that they now have care needs, you’ll get over it and seek out external help if you need extra support, and not just coldly abandon them). But again, most disabilities do not require partners to do that much extra work, if any. Honestly, this remark doesn’t even need an alternative. Just don’t make sweeping blanket statements and if someone asks you out who you’re not interested in for whatever reason, politely turn them down, geez. But then again, I also feel like people who’d openly say this are unrepentant ableist dickheads in the first place, so I think my issue is more the people who stand by and watch people say this and don’t say anything. Let’s not allow people to imply that it’s weird for able-bodied and disabled people to date each other, or that able-bodied partners of disabled people must somehow be “saints” for doing so (especially considering that domestic violence against disabled people is rampant, omg).

Basically: rather than saying “people with disabilities”, I think what person-first language should really do is talk about disabled people like individuals and not like some undifferentiated mass that somehow has every possible limitation all at once. You can just say, “people with mobility challenges”, or “people using wheelchairs”, or “people with an intellectual disability”, or “vision-impaired people”, or “hearing-impaired people”, etc.. Whether the descriptor goes before or after the noun is really much less important than actually showing some empathy for the wide range of experiences of different groups of disabled people, giving some thought to what challenges specifically are causing you to make the comment that you are making, and making explicit reference to those.