People-first Language and how its proponents silence those who are supposed to be “first”

I keep reading about people-first language (or whatever it is called) and… apparently I have an opinion about it, and whoa, I have a blog, so I guess I’ll talk about it or something.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the concept, people-first language is an attempt to enforce “rules” about how to speak to/about a disabled person. For example, instead of saying “an autistic teenager”, one might say “a teenager with autism”. Instead of “a paraplegic” or “a paralyzed person”, one might say “a person with paraplegia/paralysis”. The idea is to put the person first (hence the name), implying that the person is more important than the disability, and that a person is not defined by their disability.

Now, I understand the idea. It’s a nice idea. But… Isn’t it more important to do that with actions, not words? Speaking in a certain way and trying to force others to do the same isn’t going to miraculously fix society. Somehow, I suspect that all this accomplishes is pissing people off. It sure has pissed me off.

Let me make one thing very clear before continuing. I have autism. Asperger’s syndrome, to be exact. Pretty soon it will all be the same thing though, so… I am high-functioning autistic (whatever that means). Most people don’t even notice it. They notice that I’m different, and often seem put off by my non-standard body language, but my behaviour doesn’t just scream “AUTISM” to most people. I usually don’t get stared at (as far as I know), I don’t generally have meltdowns in public, or make strange sounds (at least audibly). So I suppose that I just want to point out that I do NOT speak for the Autism community as a whole. I want to avoid flames down the road, if anyone reads this and pulls out the whole “well my brother has low-functioning autism and…” No. These are MY opinions, based on MY experience of the world as a person with the disabilities I happen to have.

I recently commented on a YouTube video titled “10 Things Every Child With Autism Wishes You Knew”. I’m sure you can find it yourself, if you like. The video, using amazing comic sans+MS paint+bad photography skills listed… 10 things every child with autism wishes you knew. Except, from the perspective of a mother of a likely LFA child. Not the perspective of an actual autistic person. How could they know what every child with autism wants? Does she know every child with autism? Is she omniscient? I’m not entirely sure. Anyway, the first “point” the video makes is as follows:

1. I am a child with autism.

I am not “autistic.” (picture of baby)

My autism is one aspect of my total character.

It does not define me as a person.

(next slide, black against dark blue, smeary with artifacts, nearly unreadable)

Are you a person with thoughts, feelings, and many talents,

or are you just fat (overweight), myopic (wear glasses), or klutzy (uncoordinated, not good at sports)?

Last I checked, a “child with autism” is an “autistic child”. They literally have the same definition. I refer to myself as autistic and see nothing wrong with it. Who is this woman to tell me that I don’t get to do that? I posted on the video, making the point that the video does not speak for all autistic people as it claims to, and that I do not agree with the content of the video and why. These are responses I received.

First, there was this gem…

the “child” should come before the “autism”…it is a point about indentity, and the importance of being seen as a person first, and, if necessary, identified as having a certain condition second…it may seem like a fine point to the average person, but to a person with autism, I am sure it is very important…that is my interpretation anyway…

I not-so-politely (I was irritated) informed the person that I was pretty sure that my opinion as an autistic person was more valid than their NT idea of what they are “sure” autistic people think. I was then informed of this:

….Sorry I was wrong…you are an asshole with autism….

And in one fell swoop, my opinion became invalid. It didn’t matter what I thought about people-first language and how it impacts people with autism, because I am an asshole. Assholes never have valid opinions.

Then, in response to a mother discussing the fact that her autistic son refers to himself as autistic:

Your son is male just as you are female. He is not just autistic. I agree with the video he is a male that has autism. What the video is saying is this – “Everyone is more than just one description, so your son is a male who is a wonderful person with autism. I have a 7-year-old grandson on the spectrum and he is so much more than one word. I hope you understand what I am trying to say. God Bless!

I’ll admit, this one brought about a rant with cussing. I told this ignorant woman that this guy can, in fact, call himself whatever he fucking wants and it’s really not her place to tell him he can’t. I ended the rant with instructions to get the fuck over herself. This was her response.

You are a very angry hurting person for sure. I never said my opinion was more valid. I was simply trying to explain what the video was saying about a person with autism. I am praying for you.

EXCUSE ME? Because I disagree with you, I am “angry” and “hurting”? That’s ANOTHER excuse not to listen to my opinions! “Oh, she’s angry and hurting, it can’t have anything to do with the way I treat autistic people though! She’s just lashing out because other people don’t understand autism. How sad. I’d better continue to ‘educate’ people about what people with autism want. I’m such a great neurotypical for standing up for these people who have no voice!” Meanwhile, I’m screaming “NO! I’m trying to tell you what I want, why won’t you listen!”

Don’t people realize what they’re doing? They pretend to care about what autistic people think, but then when an actual autistic person tries to participate, they are labelled “asshole”, “angry”, “hurting”, “selfish”, “hates parents”, and other hurtful things, so they don’t have to listen to our ideas and opinions.

It just makes me SICK.

(I should point out that the parts I wrote, that aren’t italicized as quotes, are based on a combinations of a lot of attitudes I have encountered, while the parts that ARE indented as quotes are copied and pasted from the comments page. Just to avoid any misunderstandings.)

I suppose what I’m trying to say is… I do not have anything against the concept of person-first language and I understand what its proponents are trying to do. What I have a problem with is how they try to force it on EVERYONE, saying “this is what autistic people want” because I am autistic, and I honestly don’t want that. I honestly couldn’t care less about that, there are much bigger issues to be addressed. Even if I am the only autistic person who does not care about people-first language (which I know I’m not) the generalization of “this is what all autistic people want” is inaccurate. Just like any other broad generalization like that. I suppose it’s like being a white person, standing up and saying “all people of African descent with dark skin want to be called (black/african american/whatever term)!” Because, no. For one, my fictional person is not black. How do they know what all black people want, if they have never been black? I’m not black and I don’t claim to know what all black people want. In fact, someone may take issue with my calling people ‘black’. And that’s fine. I’m not going to pretend to know what the best term is. Two, regardless of what term the person uses, I can virtually guarantee that if I looked hard enough, I could find a black person who doesn’t care if they are called that or not. Because black people are STILL INDIVIDUAL PEOPLE, not some sort of “hive mind” with all the same opinions. Saying anything about “all black people” or “all autistic people” or any other generalization is going to be untrue about SOMEONE.

Unfortunately, within the autism community, the people making the generalizations are often the people in power. If an autistic person speaks up, and voices their disagreement, they are immediately classified as “not really autistic”, “bitter”, “parent-hater”, or many other things to silence their opinion.

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. phyre
    Apr 14, 2011 @ 12:18:20

    As another autistic person/person with autism/what-the-hell-ever, I agree that it’s very irritating when NTs claim to speak for all of us. Plenty of us can speak for ourselves, thanks.

    However, you would have gotten your point across on that comment page much more effectively with less ranting and cussing. You have a right to be angry, but yelling and insults just distract from your very valid point and make people much less likely to listen to you.


    • Torako
      Apr 15, 2011 @ 13:27:24

      Maybe it was a “bully word game”!

      In all seriousness though, yeah I know… I’m not exactly eloquent when I’m ticked though, you know that. -_-;

      Somehow I’m not sure they would have reacted that much differently, though.


  2. neona
    Apr 24, 2011 @ 17:26:00

    One day we’ll discover the African hive mind, deep in the jungles of Africa. Then you’ll see.


  3. Clare Flourish
    Jan 21, 2012 @ 03:18:06

    I am transsexual. A lot of us object to being called “a transsexual” for similar reasons: it does not define us, etc, I am so much more. The counter-argument is this. No-one objects to being called a “diabetic”, because diabetes is not embarrassing or threatening to others. If you hedge the word transsexual, and trans people, round with protections and courtesies, you are asserting that “transsexual” is embarrassing.

    But when I hear someone describe herself as a POC, standing for Person of Colour, it seems that she puts person first.

    Your best point, and I say, Yes, Yes,Yes is: Do not speak for me.


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