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Why I Support Identity-First Language as a Proud Deaf Autistic


Editor's Note

This story reflects an individual’s experience and is not an endorsement from The Mighty. We believe in sharing a variety of perspectives from our community.

I am a deaf and autistic young lady. That is right; I just used identity-first language. In the world of disabilities, identity-first language is often shunned by those who are not disabled.

“You are not deaf, you have a hearing loss,” they say.

“You are not autistic, you have autism,” they say.

However, I cannot have a hearing loss when I have never had my hearing in the first place. I did gain something, though: a community, a culture, and even a language! The same goes for my autism. I have never been anything but autistic. Autism is why I perceive the world the way I do, and that is pretty cool! Why shouldn’t I be proud to use identity-first language?

Identity-first language is the most common method people use to identify themselves.

“I am a doctor.”

“I am a black man.”

“I am an artist.”

“I am a lesbian.”

“I am an American.”

“I am a Muslim.”

And the list goes on. We use identity-first language every day without giving it a second thought. Of course we should be proud of our identities! They make up so much of who we are. Imagine if instead people said, “I am a person with a doctorate” or “I am a person who paints” or “I am a person with citizenship in America.” Imagine telling a black man that he is not a black man, but simply a man with black skin. A man who is proud of his African roots would likely be offended by this statement.

Guess what? We the disabled are a proud people! I have never knowingly met a disabled person who steered clear of identity-first language.

Some Deaf people do not even consider their deafness to be a disability. What is disabling is the rest of society’s inability or unwillingness to provide us with the accommodations we need to adapt to their world. Ironically though, one of my college professors from Gallaudet University, a proud Deaf woman, taught us in her class that we should use person-first language when referring to disabled people. It did not take long for me to learn that while many Deaf people do not see their deafness as a disability, they still see other differences like autism as disabilities. I had a friend in college who is blind and autistic. My friend once told me about a time in class when the teacher asked the students if deafness was a disability. They said no. Then the teacher asked if they thought blindness was a disability. They said yes. My friend was taken aback by this revelation. Just as deafness was the absence of sound, blindness was merely the absence of sight. Because my friend was born blind, that lack of sight was just a different way of being. It was an identity.

Sadly, many autistic people do still view their autism negatively. However, recent studies suggest that autism played an essential role in evolution. Autistic people in ancient tribes may have been revered for their unique skill sets. I know I am proud of that history and I want other autistics to be as well. Autism does have its own culture. While it can be challenging for autistics to get along socially with allistics (non-autistic people), I have observed both for myself and others a lack of stress and anxiety when interacting with other autistic people. It is as if we autistics are all on the same wavelength whereas everyone else functions on a different wavelength. It can still be difficult when we are forced to practice Western societal rules such as eye contact. Remove that pressure and we autistics usuallu get along just fine.

I believe we need to stop viewing our differences as just disabilities, but also consider them to be identities. Secondly, whether or not the use of person-first language has good intentions, I feel it shames the disabled person. When “person with autism” is stressed, it’s essentially telling me I should not be proud of my autism. I find it ridiculous when a parent says, “Autism is not who my child is.” But autism is a neurological disorder, meaning our whole brain is autistic. Every passion that autistic child has, every interest, every desire, every piece of his personality stems from that beautiful autistic brain. It is the amazingly complex and oft-misunderstood wiring of that brain that gave us the many brilliant minds throughout history who are known or suspected to have been autistic, including Charles Darwin, Emily Dickinson, Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Temple Grandin, Dan Aykroyd, Daryl Hannah and Satoshi Tajiri (creator of Pokemon).

This is why I say “down with person-first language!” Your disability or difference, whether it be deafness, autism, blindness or cerebral palsy, is a part of who you are. Be proud of it. Embrace your identity! I know I have.

Signed, a Deaf Autistic

Getty image by Qvasimodo.