Monday, December 3, 2012

Person-first language doesn't put people first, it makes them invisible

The last time this issue came around to my attention, I chose not to write about it. Mainly this was because I felt that other autism bloggers had covered the issue thoroughly and I don't like to write "me too" posts. Autistic Hoya has a solid rundown on this, and I didn't think that I had anything to contribute to the discussion after reading her post. She does a really good job of explaining why "person with autism" is problematic. For those of you that didn't bother clicking over, here's the rundown:

"Autistic person" or "autistic" makes autism part of my identity. It is inseparable from who I am, it informs my viewpoint, and it would not be productive to discuss me as if there was a non-autistic version of me that might be unlocked somehow. Autism does not filter my thoughts or views, it shapes them. It is part of me because it is part of my experience. It isn't going away, it isn't something that happened to an otherwise fully-formed being, and it isn't something that should be treated as if it makes me less of a person.

"Person with autism" pushes my experiences and thoughts that are distinctly autistic to the fringe. By putting "me" first instead of my "condition", it's supposed to convey the idea that I am a person of equal value to everyone else, that my autism isn't the most important thing about me, and that I shouldn't be viewed as a label.

Except it doesn't do that. Instead, it makes my experiences as an autistic adult a secondary add-on to my humanity. Rather than taking the emphasis off my condition, it makes it more conspicuous by creating a wordy, unwieldy construction in the language that is harder to say, requires more conscientious use to maintain consistently, and worst of all, makes autism a passive characteristic (both grammatically and as part of my life) rather than an active adjective. And my autism is active.

The "person-first" construction demands that I be treated as a person despite my autism. My preferred construction demands that I be treated as a person because of my autism. It shows that my experiences come from a unique way of interacting with the human condition. It's more than just an identity label, it's a way of showing that this is not an add-on to the human condition, it's an active modifier of it that gives it depth and specificity beyond what a simple add-on label, a simple little passively constructed person-first homogenizing modifier, could ever do.

I've heard some people who don't really care about the language so much voicing the opinion that we should all use the construction that we prefer, but I don't think that's the answer either. In fact, I don't think it's productive to respect the wishes of parents or autistic adults that want to use person-first language. Here's why:

The problem with the so-called "person-first" language is not that the term "person with autism" is offensive. It's that the mindset that says that we have to separate the experience of the disability from the human experience is offensive. It's an ableist mindset, because it seeks to marginalize the impact of the condition on the lived experiences of the person who is most affected by it. When autistic adults endorse this way of viewing themselves, they are essentially inviting the listener to dismiss any part of what they say that the listener disagrees with, because it makes a major part of the speaker's experience and mode of communication into an afterthought. Rather than destigmatizing autism, it restigmatizes it by allowing the listener to assume that the "person" part can be respected apart from the "autism" part.

When parents insist on pushing this language onto their children, it's even worse, because the parents are saying that they want the child to view him- or herself as someone apart from the perceptions of their senses, their emotions, and their rational thinking, all of which are inextricably part of the autistic experience. That who we are is something other than anything we think or feel or experience, and that those other things should not be considered important or articulated. They are saying that what makes the child valuable is that he/she is a child, but that their thoughts, feelings, and ways of making sense of the world are not only non-valuable, they are only an afterthought. Rather than putting the person first, "person-first" language removes autism from the spectrum of human experience.

This is not just problematic, it is disgusting. For a child, especially an abnormally literal-minded one, the idea that one's thoughts, experiences, and emotional makeup should be pushed aside, or that they should not be considered first and foremost as the thing that makes one a valuable person, is dangerous. It creates a situation where the value of a person is so divorced from their experience that a literal, black-and-white interpretation of this idea might lead one to conclude that differences in communication, emotional makeup, and viewpoint are not valuable.

This language stifles diversity in the minds of the people who endorse it, and it stifles the ability to understand the views and perspectives of others in the autistics who are taught to use it. It undermines our struggle to identify with others and to place ourselves in their shoes by making their shoes unimportant. It is only useful for shutting down first-person experience, which is often a difficult thing for us to articulate. It assumes that the condition dehumanizes us, and as a result, it dehumanizes the condition.

Once you do that, you can begin to write off portions of what we say as being "over emotional" or "disordered", and then you can ignore those parts of what we have to say and pretend that they don't matter. When that happens, our real concerns and problems become disposable, our competence is no longer assumed, and we begin the slide back to the days when we would simply be institutionalized and forgotten about by the people who "knew best".

By contrast, "autistic adult" or "autistic person" is confrontational. It defies the idea that autism is stigmatized by refusing to take attention off it, and it creates an atmosphere whereby using it as a label or an insult is harder because it is owned by people who are demonstrating self-determination and confidence. It puts everything we say into the proper context and defies the listener to dismiss any part of it.

The people I hear who say that "autistic" is a degrading label are forgetting that degradation is an experience of the effects of attitudes on language, not an intrinsic feature of the vocabulary. The grammar matters.

I'm signing off this post with a comparison, for anyone who still has a hard time getting this:

You don't say that Sally Ride was an astronaut with femaleness, you say that she was a female astronaut.
You don't say that President Obama was a president with blackness, you say he was a black president.
You don't say that Harvey Milk was a politician with homosexuality, you say that he was a gay politician.
You don't say person with deafness, you say deaf person.
You don't say person with blindness, you say blind person.

Don't say I'm a  "person with autism". I'm an autistic person. There is nothing I could write or do or say that would not involve that part of my being, and it's not something I can stop doing for a while or get over, so it's not something I'm "with", it's something I am.