Two weeks ago, I posted on this blog an analysis on why many prefer person first language when talking about disabilities. At that time, I assumed that person first language was the de facto linguistic standard in the disability community, but I’ve talked with several of my fellow interns, and it turns out that many of them actually do not like being referred to in terms of person first language (i.e. they prefer being called “disabled” over “persons with disabilities”) because, to my surprise, they consider their disabilities to be parts of their identities.
I thought about why one would choose to directly identify with his or her disability. For me personally, I often see my disability as an impediment to my goals and life, and I feel that I have had to constantly fight with it to determine whether my future will be dictated by my strengths or my weaknesses. There have been times in my life where I felt that I was losing that fight and succumbing to a fate of unfulfilled potential as well as times where I felt that I was triumphing over my weaknesses that result from my condition. I would like others to acknowledge the extra effort I have had to and will continue to exert in this constant struggle, and person first language does just that. So, I can appreciate why many insist on its use.
But I now understand how I had wrongly assumed the ubiquity of my experience and negative perceptions. In reality, to live with a disability is simply an experience, and that experience is only a negative when it is perceived as such. While I may have an almost antagonistic relationship with my disability, I can see how others might actually embrace their conditions as parts of their identities. This is not to say that people who refrain from using person first language enjoy being disabled, but I would guess that they probably are much more accepting of them. For example, a person who cannot walk may not enjoy using a wheel chair, but she accepts it much like a person who is short accepts that he may never be able to play professional basketball. These consequences are not shattered dreams but rather natural realities, and their pride, not their shame, ultimately justifies their endurance through any perceived hardships. Those who contribute to the disability rights movement fight not to mitigate the challenges of their disabilities, but to integrate their unique and unchangeable selves into society. Their conditions, for better or for worse, become parts of their own identity and self-image, and person first language would thus seem to tear apart that image.
Of course the next logical question is how one could be so accepting of his or her seeming flaws and limitations? Not to end on a cliché, but I do remember that my mother once told me that love between two people is the mutual embrace of each of their entireties, the perceived good as well as the perceived bad. It may thus be a similar love of the self that enables the identification with a disability.