People are often surprised when I call myself “disabled”. Over the years, society has shifted toward person-first language (i.e., person with disabilities) to describe disability. However, many people in the disabled community prefer identity-first language (i.e., the disabled). Much of this confusion comes from the unconscious but widespread understanding of disability as inherently negative. Disabled people shine against this narrative and insist that disability is just another part of the human condition. I, too, strive for this narrative because my disability is an integral part of my identity.
As a child with cerebral palsy, I tried to distance myself from my disability. I was the only visually impaired student in my public elementary school. The administration did everything it could to prevent me from getting there. When I was in kindergarten, I was taken to my chosen elementary school on one of the short buses and had to walk the whole school – which included several floors and heavy doors that I had to open myself – to show them that I could. None of my non-disabled classmates were allowed to complete this trip, but as a disabled child, I had to prove that I was capable of going to my elementary school. Luckily, I passed the test and was allowed to go to the same school as my sister and neighbors.
But elementary school problems did not end there. When I was in first grade, a physiotherapist and teacher tried to get me removed from school. They claimed I had ADHD, and when I struggled to learn to read, the teacher said I was “too disabled” to go to regular school. I was able to finish elementary school there (thanks to my mother who struggled against school), but the experience had lasting effects.
For years, I struggled with cheat syndrome whether I belonged to school or not. And more than that, I struggled with my disability. All I wanted was to be normal and not have to worry about how others perceived me. It was only in college that I felt really comfortable with my disability. After years of only being immersed in the disabled community for the three weeks I attended summer camp, I discovered the online disabled community. Activists in this community who are more eloquent and knowledgeable than I could ever hope for make a point of using identity-first language because they see their disability as an integral part of their identity.
My disability defines me and acknowledging it helps me to feel seen in a world that is trying to erase me.
When I started calling myself disabled, I received some returns from non-disabled people, mainly those who work with disabled people or are studying to work with disabled people. They told me I was “wrong” because I said I was disabled instead of someone with a disability. When I asked them to elaborate, they explained that their professors of speech pathology or special education courses taught them that person-first language is more correct because it emphasizes that the disabled person is first and foremost a person and that their disability should not be define them. But my disability defines me, and recognizing it helps me feel seen in a world that is trying to erase me.
I cannot separate from my disability because I have been disabled all my life. The only lens I’ve seen through the world is that of a disabled cisgender white woman. My worldview is shaped by the identities I have, both privileged and marginalized. Like many people, I am a mystery. While my disability and femininity put me at the societal disadvantage, I am protected from experiencing racism and transphobia by my skin color and gender identity. In this way, my perspective and who I am is shaped by all aspects of my identity, including my disability.
That is why I encourage others to use identity-first language. Because disability does not lift my personality, there is no reason to stress that I am a person before my disability. Of course I’m a person. But I am also disabled, and I also want that part of my identity to be recognized.