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Person-first or identity-first?

Discover how a small change in the language you use can have a big impact.
Wooden tiles are laid out to spell the word ‘respect’
© Motizova

Some people prefer person-first language. Others prefer identity-first language. People with disability get to decide and other people need to respect and uphold their preference.

There are two different positions on inclusive language: person-first and identity-first. There are also regional differences (that is, influenced by cultural norms and politics) and some cultural differences (that is, the preferences of some groups, such as the Deaf community).

Person-first language

Person-first language is when we use terms like ‘student with disability’ or ‘child diagnosed with ADHD’. Framing language in this way means the person is foregrounded, not a diagnostic term. Using person-first language can help avoid prejudice based on a diagnosis the person may have received. Person-first language reminds us everyone is an individual, and recognises that everyone has multiple identities (e.g., woman, daughter, sister, wife, mother, architect, friend, cat lover).

It is important to note some people with disability are offended by person-first language. These people believe their individual difference is integral to their identity and that person-first language validates prejudice. Person-first language is the preferred position in Australia, the United States of America and South Africa.

Identity-first language

Identity-first language is when terms like ‘disabled person’ or ‘Autistic’ are used. Positioning disability or difference first is a way some people with disability choose to affirm their identity. Identity-first language is often used in the United Kingdom to align with the social model, and by people who identify as Autistic or Deaf. It is wise to ask the individual before using identity-first language, especially in countries where it is not commonly in use.

It is never okay to refer to students as ‘my ADHD student’ or ‘the spina bifida student’. Such phrases are dehumanising, as the person is replaced by a label.

The words ‘hashtag not special needs just human needs’ are shown on a black background with orange and green graffiti in the distance. The term ‘special needs’ is offensive to people with disability. © QUT


Remember, we have rights, not needs.

One term that is sometimes used but is not compatible with inclusive education is ‘special needs’. While some people require adjustments to address barriers that prevent them from participating in activities of their choosing, the presence (or absence) of disability does not make a human need ‘special’. The term ‘special needs’ is considered offensive as it positions people with disability as abnormal, dependent and burdensome. It is also important to remember that people with disability don’t have ‘needs’, they have rights.

Watch it

This video created for World Down Syndrome Day is a powerful reminder that all people have common human needs: to have shelter, to eat and sleep, to access education and to be loved.
© QUT 2019. All rights reserved. CRICOS No. 00213J
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