Person-first language is a system where, instead of using a certain feature to describe someone, the words are rearranged so that they become a person with said feature. For example, disabled person becomes person with a disability, autistic person becomes person with autism, and so on. Some people actually like this but I don’t, and this seemingly insignificant change to sentence structure has thus proved controversial.
I have a lot of reasons to dislike person-first language. For starters, as a writer, I find it clunky. It drives up the word count unnecessarily, and I find that it breaks the flow of a sentence. After all, Diary of a Person with a Disability doesn’t sound anywhere near as natural as Diary of a Disabled Person. Besides, the name of my blog was actually inspired by a novel called Diary of a Nobody, and frankly Diary of a Person with Nobodiness isn’t a title I’d be drawn to either for inspiration or reading material.
Practicality aside, there are also a few implications of person-first language that I find distasteful. First and foremost is that, if you have to remind yourself that above all else I am still a human being, I don’t want to have anything to do with you. A sentence should be restructured to improve its readability, not to reinforce my humanity.
I also find that person-first language is almost exclusively used when discussing disabled people; after all, person with gayness just doesn’t sound right. The exception to this is of course POC (Person of Colour), although you’re far more likely to come across the acronyms BAME (Black, Asian, & Minority Ethnic) or BIPOC (Black, Indigenous People of Colour) which revert the trope. Person-first language ends up being yet another feature for which disabled people find themselves singled out, and segregating them as the group who you need to be reminded of as being human.
If you were to overcome this barrier by describing all protected characteristics in terms of person-first language, another nasty implication comes to light. In this scenario, a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, able-bodied man would be deemed just a person, without any caveats. That to me seems to reinforce that protected characteristics are dehumanising factors, almost like the small print on adverts. This is a person who just so happens to be disabled and very queer.
Worst of all is the way in which, when discussing disability in any capacity, well-meaning able-bodied people try to police the language we use. We can’t describe ourselves as disabled because that’s a bad thing (apparently), and when writing about working with disabled people for a qualification you’ll lose marks for not using person-first language (seriously, this is a thing). Our opinions on how we are spoken about are disregarded as irrelevant, which means that our opinions on accessibility can only follow suit. I have quite seriously had messages criticising me for the name of this blog, for how I describe myself, and for having a sentence starting with disability permanently etched into my arm.
For every good Samaritan spouting “See the ability, not the dis”, I am reminded that if people actually would pay attention to the fact that I use a wheelchair and am disabled, inaccessibility wouldn’t be so damn prevalent.