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The Shift to Identity-First Language


Toni Saia

This module aligns with the following DSE tenets:

  • contextualizes disability within political and social

  • privileges the interest, agendas, and voices of people labeled with disability/disabled people

Language is a personal choice that is often related to experiences and connections to a group or community. Still, language has the power to affect people’s experiences and connections with a group or community. Currently, there is no consensus among the disability community about preferences for person-first versus identity-first language (Dunn & Andrews, 2015).  The purpose of this module is to explore both options and highlight why disability studies scholars promote identity-first language. 


Essential Questions 

  1. What is person-first language? 

  2. What is identity-first language? 

  3. How does language impact how we understand disability? 



  • Acknowledge the differences between person-first language and identity-first language. 

  • Understand the connection between language and identity. 

  • Embrace disability as an identity-one worth choosing and celebrating. 


Person-first language

Person-first language is exactly how it sounds, putting the people first and the disability second. For example, a person with a disability, student with autism, student who uses a wheelchair. The emphasis is placed on the person. It is often viewed as the less offensive option as “no one with a disability should be referred to in monolithic terms (e.g., a tetraplegic, a diabetic), because doing so effectively objectifies the person by focusing only on the impairment” (Dunn & Andrews, 2015, p. 258). Person-first language seems to have become the “gold standard” for doctors, teachers, and other professionals, sending the message that this was the only way to speak about disability. 


Some Critiques

Person-first language intentionally separates a person from their disability. We don’t adopt this approach when discussing other identities or descriptors. As Ladau (2015) points out:

 “would you ever make a point of describing someone by saying something like, for example, “a person who is Jewish” or “a person who is Asian?” Or would you just say “He’s Jewish,” or “She’s Asian?” My guess is you wouldn’t give descriptors like these a second thought. They’re not offensive words and there’s no implication of deficiency. They’re just facts about a person. Why isn’t disability treated in the same way?” (para 8). 

Furthermore, why do we continue to position disability as an inherently bad thing, something to be pitied, shamed, and ignored? Many disability studies scholars believe person-first language continues to perpetuate the stigma and misconceptions that loom over the disability community which seems contradictory given that it is often sold as the more polite and respectful choice. 


Identity-first language 

Identity-first language such as disabled, a disabled student, became popular within disability studies and disability rights when referring to the collective group. “Rather than maintaining disability as a secondary characteristic, disabled has become a marker of identity that the individual and the group wish to highlight and call attention to (Linton,1998 p.13). The use of identity-first language such as “autistic girl” is intentional and gives disabled people the opportunity to reclaim the word as an expression of solidarity and pride in one's disability identity. It also allows disabled people, in an effort to normalize the disability experience, to challenge terminology historically used to pathologize (Dunn & Burcaw, 2013). 


Consistent with the social model (review lesson plan on the social model of disability for more information), disabled people experience oppression due to a lack of accessibility, and physical, social, and attitudinal barriers. Disability studies educators would argue that society is the disabling factor and the decision to use identity-first language shifts the narrative away from disability as an individual problem and places the burden on society. 



*This is not an exhaustive list and language is a personal preference and choice. Respect and listen to disabled people. Be a constant learner, be open to suggestions, own up to your mistakes and try to avoid getting defensive.

  • Say the word disability/disabled if that is what you are referring to.

  • Avoid euphemisms such as differently-abled, disABLED, physically challenged, dis/abled, handicapable, special needs. Terms like these can be invalidating, disempowering, and offensive. 



Talk to a friend or colleague and discuss: 

Do I typically use person-first or identity-first? Does it depend on the context? Why do I use it? Will I continue or change my practice? 



Language is constantly evolving; however, it is vital for disability studies educators to understand the nuances related to language choice and challenge the idea that person-first language is a one size fits all approach. Identity-first language centers the experiences of disabled people and aligns with the social model of disability. Additionally, it recognizes disability as a valid identity, one worth choosing and celebrating.



  • Dunn, D. S., & Andrews, E. E. (2015). Person-first and identity-first language: Developing psychologists’ cultural competence using disability language. American Psychologist, 70(3), 255–264. doi:10.1037/a0038636

  • Dunn, D. S., & Burcaw, S. (2013). Disability identity: Exploring narrative accounts of disability. Rehabilitation Psychology, 58(2), 148–157.

  • Ladau, E. (2021, July 7). Why person-first language doesn’t always put the person first. Think Inclusive.

  • Linton, S. (1998). Claiming disability: Knowledge and identity. NYU Press

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