The social model of disability and person-first vs identity-first language


First, a quick recap of some terminology I often use here…

Person-first language:  “person with autism”, “she has autism”, “she has a disability”

Identity-first language:  “she is autistic”, “she is disabled”

Medical model of disability:  Disabilities are caused by one’s brain or body not functioning properly.

Social model of disability:  While some disabilities and illnesses may be genetic and chronic, it is ableism and accessibility barriers, not the disability or illness itself, that get in the way of functioning.

And just in case…

Ableism:  prejudice and/or poor treatment toward disabled people/people with disabilities or chronic illnesses

I love this article written by a person with mobility impairments who supports identity-first language and the social model:  I am not a “person with a disability”: I am a disabled person

In it, the impact of ableism on disabled people is referred to as being like “disabling a wi-fi connection”:

“Most people look at the word ‘disabled’ and assume it means ‘less able.’  It doesn’t. It means ‘prevented from functioning.’ When I turn the wireless connection off on my computer, I get told that the connection has been ‘disabled’.  Does this mean that my wifi has suddenly become less able or broken? Has my wifi acquired a disability? Of course not. It has been prevented from functioning by an external force. In a very similar way to how I’m disabled by bus drivers that just won’t stop if they see me — a wheelchair user — waiting at the bus stop.

As a person with a mobility impairment I am disabled by steps, stairs, escalators, being denied computer access as I can’t write by hand, inaccessible housing, and so on. To me a flight of stairs without a lift as an alternative is the equivalent of right-clicking me and selecting ‘disable Lisa’.”

Well first of all…that metaphor is not only hilarious but explains a lot.

So does the rest of the article and now I understand identity-first language in a completely different way.

I’m autistic, bipolar, and have cognitive impairments among other things. I am all for the social model but usually call myself a “person with disabilities” nonetheless. I don’t see it as necessarily at odds with the social model, which is how I conceptualize myself too (and it does make me feel more confident than I used to be, since the medical model is just spectacular at destroying self-esteem).

I think that ultimately it is society that disables people, but like this author’s friends who prefer “person with disability”, my challenges would get better but never go away entirely if society were to magically become free of all forms of oppression tomorrow. I have a weird brain and body that cause me to sometimes not be able to get out of bed, or find my left shoe, or remember my phone number, or be able to walk without pain (I’ve tried almost every pain medication there is but they interfere in frustrating ways with my psych meds), or whatever else. Society makes it worse, so much worse, but society doesn’t chain me to my bed or lose my left shoe or make me forget my phone number. My brain does all those things, and will continue to do all of those things forever. I just have to accept that.

That said…  typically, when I hear “disabled” versus “person with disability” arguments, I think that people who find their disability a large part of their identity, say they’re disabled because they can’t or don’t want to separate themselves from that identity. People who perhaps find it secondary to other identities and can pass as non-disabled, or people like myself who can’t always pass but think that ableism isn’t the whole story for them, say “person with disability”.

The explanation of distinguishing between “impairment” and “disability”, that impairments may make some things difficult or impossible but society is what disables people at the end of the day, makes so much sense. This allows identity-first language to be inclusive of people like myself, with chronic genetic conditions.  In fact I might have to reconsider my stance and preferences.


(Lisa Egan, the author, image courtesy of xojane via ewheeling.  Image description:  a white female wheelchair-user with light brown hair and glasses, outside on a sidewalk.   She wears a light purple sweatshirt and black sweatpants and holds a coffee cup, and her hair is pulled back.  In the background is a black iron fence, a red brick building, and a few bicycles leaning against the fence.)


2 responses »

  1. Pingback: WTF, WordPress? | Radically Mad

  2. Pingback: Weekly Links | a day with depression

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