Letters from the CEO |

Identity First vs. People First Language

There is a debate in the disability community about the best way to describe people who have disabilities.

We are all familiar with “People First” or “Person-Centered” language. I have been working in the Disability Services field since 1996, and it is what I learned early on, and quickly adapted myself. “People First” language is intended to be respectful by putting the PERSON before their disability. An example of “People First” language is “they are a person with a disability.”

Now, many self-advocates are beginning to prefer and use “Identity First” Language. When I first started learning about it, I struggled with the concept, because of all I had been taught by the People First movement. An example of “Identity First” language is, “they are a disabled person.” It is meant to be a way to normalize disability as a natural part of the human condition and not something that has to be downplayed. Said another way, it is ok to be disabled, and self-advocates—and those who know them—are proud of who they are.

An impactful article for me was Cara Leibowitz’s piece I am Disabled: On Identity First Vs People-First Language for The Body Is Not an Apology. In it, Leibowitz writes,”In every community, there will always be exceptions. When in doubt, ask the person how they like to be described. Never make an assumption if you are in a position to ask. If you are referring to a broad community or to a person you can’t ask, I suggest you default to the language most commonly used by members of that community—not the language commonly used by parents or allies.”

Because “Identity First” language is becoming more and more favored by self-advocates in the disability community, The Arc Minnesota has started to use both “People First” and “Identity First” language in our publications. We provided training for staff on this, emphasizing that for now, it is not one or the other—everyone has a different opinion on the issue—so we will use both forms of identification in our communications.

Language matters, how we use it matters, and it is an important choice for us as an organization and for us as individuals. We are working to put together resources and educational materials—including finding ways to elevate the lived experience of disabled people themselves —so that our broader Arc community is informed and understands these two ways of identification. We welcome you to join us in this dialogue, and stay tuned for more information on this important topic!

Letters from the CEO is The Arc Minnesota’s series of blog posts from CEO Andrea Zuber about our priorities and passions as an organization.