To Be A Person, or, Not To Be A Person-With

I promised to address “person-first” language. (And my pal David promised to “rip the piss outa [me]”, for which I’m curious what-all he has to say. Then again, I’m really curious as to what all of you readers here have to say; just who ARE you people??)

Person-first language refers to saying things like “person with a hearing loss”, as opposed to someone “being hard-of-hearing’. The philosophy behind this is that the person is more important than an impairment they have; that a person should not be known by a diagnosis. This is a reasonable goal, but like anything, it can be taken to extremes and has been.

I think “person-with” makes better rational linguistic sense when the “with” is a temporary (or preferably temporary) condition, as in “person with broken leg” or “person with cancer”. Person-first language makes all kinds of sense when trying to avoid the bad hospital habit of saying “the emphysema in 402”. The ENT says I am a person with hyperacussis and tinnitus.

Actually, I would end up saying things like, “I am nearsighted and have Auditory Processing Disorder”, and skip the whole person-with scenario. “I am brunette” is infinitely handier than saying “I have (or am a person with) brunette hair”. It’s understood that it’s my hair color we’re talking about, and that a description of me is only slightly delineated by that descriptor – I’m more than my hair.

When the condition is rather a state of being — something fairly permanent, whether acquired or developmental — then it’s (noun) as in autistic, Deaf, gay, male, dyslexic, Canadian et cetera.

Person-first can be prissy and awkward and sometimes is simply benign earnestness at being polite – well-intended but treacly. Or, person-first can be Politically Correct at its most obnoxious, demonstrating a belief that the condition is “recoverable” and thus meaning something should be done about it. At its worst, person-first demonstrates a belief that the condition is shameful, to be avoided or hidden, such as a person with homosexual tendencies who just needs a good dose of religious correction and a burning desire to be morally uprighteous and “normal”.

Early in my life I started doing things left-handed, so they made sure I learned to write with my right hand. And I’m still left-handed. My inner right-handed person was never “recovered” from that pathological condition, because that imaginary person was never there. I’m a lefty who has learned how to be ambidextrous, which often means that I’m clumsy any way I go about it. Trying to pretend I’m really a right-handed person and calling me such never changed that. Likewise, autistics are not broken or diseased neurotypicals, anymore than gays and lesbians are not confused or immoral heterosexuals.

(I just wish there was a better term for “I have ADHD”; ADDer just doesn’t cut it for me. Maybe they’ll rename it – again – and we’ll have a more euphonic term.)


  1. 28 December 2015 at 20:42

    […] * “Person-first language” refers to the practice of saying, “person with ____”, meant to emphasizing the person rather than defining them by their condition(s). Good intentions run into the law of unintended consequences when ignoring how people define themselves by intrinsic qualities, e.g. “I am a Deaf”, “My autistic aunt”, “He’s bisexual”. […]

  2. Ettina said,

    19 March 2008 at 17:25

    “I’m a person, first and foremost, even though certain factors will impact on my personhood. I have ADD, brown hair, fibromyalgia, etc., but I’m not any of them.”

    ‘Impact on your personhood’?
    That’s the big problem I have with person first language. It treats disability as somewhat incompatible with personhood, so you have to make it *extra obvious* that you really, truly are talking about a person, rather than some ‘thing’ that looks human. I know they are well-meaning, trying to fight that, but it represents a whole lot more ‘buying into’ that attitude than if you treat disability like any other variation.
    The general pattern most people do with most traits is:
    a) if it is central to the person’s identity, they use a special noun (eg ‘woman’). Using person first language for something like this is not standard and sounds weird (person with femaleness). They will sometimes use female as an adjective preceding the noun if the noun being used indicates something else fairly important, such as ‘female musician’, but otherwise it’s a specialized person-noun.
    b) if it is important (but not central) they will use specialized person-noun or an adjective before the noun in most cases. The distinction with a) is not very clear.
    c) if it’s fairly prominent but not a major part of their identity, they may use modified noun (eg brunette), adjective before the noun (eg brown-haired person) or person first language (eg person with brown hair)
    d) if it’s really insignificant, they generally use either the adjective before the noun (eg blue-eyed person) or person first language (eg person with blue eyes). Person first language only seems to be the norm with temporary things, like ‘person with a blue shirt’.

  3. 3 January 2008 at 4:27

    […] disabilities and their effects from personhood? I’ve previously blogged about “person-first language“. The philosophy behind this is that the person is more important than an impairment they […]

  4. Jannalou said,

    1 September 2006 at 23:31

    But what I lack is the ability to purse the various parts of my day as the spirit moves me.

    This is what I like about my job now. I have the flexibility to create my own schedule, decide just what to do when, etc. I’ve created a flow for my week, and I have a list of about two tasks per day that are things I have to do on a weekly basis. That gives me plenty of leeway to make everything else that comes up fit into my day. I usually do the two necessary tasks in the morning, and then in the afternoon I tackle a larger project (in July I had to design posters and tickets and programs for a concert we were having at the church, and right now it’s wedding season so I have various administrative tasks to deal with there).

    In between work-related tasks, I will spend up to fifteen minutes (I try to keep my time limited to that as best as I can) “playing on the computer” – checking my e-mail, browsing & commenting on blogs, occasionally writing a blog post, etc. I need that play time to keep me going – my brain definitely burns out otherwise. (When I’m designing a leaflet cover – or anything else relating to visual design – I can spend up to four hours on the one task. Talk about hyperfocus!)

    But I have short work days (8.00 a.m.-3.30 p.m.); it’s my time at home that I need to figure out how to structure a tad better, especially with this new identity as an “activist”. (I hadn’t thought of myself as such until today, when I received an e-mail from my uncle – who I asked for advice regarding my new role with TAAProject – and he called me one. I suppose I am.)

  5. David N. Andrews BA-status, PgCertSpEd (pending) said,

    1 September 2006 at 22:07

    “My day is structured for over fourteen hours. My problem is not the structured quality of the day, nor even what I’m doing, because I enjoy what I’m doing.

    The problem is that there’s no flexibility.”

    This is one of the issues that I raise in my courses, actually.

    There is a really insane interpretation of the whole structure issue in Finland that seems to be based on a “this is what you do now and later you do something else, and this cannot vary from what we set for you” type of thinking. That was certainly my experience of how Autismisäätiö went about things with me. All structure needs built-in flexibility. And it needs to be built around the preferences of the person for whom it is conctructed. Their ‘support’ used to actually get me very anxious (anyone familiar with my case will know what the basis of this is), and even now – as someone not a client of theirs – seeing the workers in the street can be quite anxiety provoking.

  6. Catana said,

    1 September 2006 at 20:02

    Yes, that’s the other side of structure, Andrea, being stuck in one not of your own making and that can’t adjust to your needs. I look at structure the same way I look at stimulation–I need balance in both. Darned hard to achieve, though.

  7. andrea said,

    1 September 2006 at 19:23

    Off-topic, Catana? But everything’s related to ADD!
    Actually, my annoyance is more about complaints regarding hostilities on other blogs, which events I don’t need dragged over here.

    In reference to your comment, I’m ambivalent about having structure for dealing with the ADHD. Today I realised that it’s not the QUANTITY of structure that’s the issue, but rather the QUALITY of the structure.

    I need structure. I find vacations just as horribly discombobulating as most any autistic, because too much of everything isn’t the same, not the blanket on my bed nor when I get my morning coffee nor the mug it’s in nor any other myriad details that help me slide through the day, without having to notice a bazillion new details and decode what they are and decipher what they mean and make decisions, ALL the time about every single least little thing. Don’t get me wrong — I love vacations! I really enjoy going places and seeing new sights and eating out and doing new things. In a perfect world I could teleport from my bedroom to the vacation spot every day.

    In contrast, my current schedule has loads of structure. For instance, on Thursdays I worked as a para for seven hours, then tutor an hour, then have a bit of a break, then take a class for three hours. My day is structured for over fourteen hours. My problem is not the structured quality of the day, nor even what I’m doing, because I enjoy what I’m doing.

    The problem is that there’s no flexibility. By midmorning when I’m having great ideas about things to do with the greenhouse program with my students, I have no freedom to go research information I need, or get supplies, or discuss things with people. Instead, I have to grade papers and assist students and take behavioral notes and prep for labs. I like doing all that other stuff. I like the students. That’s why I’m there.

    But what I lack is the ability to purse the various parts of my day as the spirit moves me. On my own I get things done in the time frames that they need to be done; I meet deadlines. But in this arrangement I’m stuck with switching my attention constantly (giant mental “unzipping Velcro” noise of having my attention forcibly torn away), according to some random clock schedule that has no relation to how much time any particular activity requires, or when I’m actually hungry, or when any particular student is ready to deal with a particular subject. There’s no flexibility.

    There are no openings for sinking myself wholeheartedly into any given thing and hyperfocusing upon it.

    There are no openings for minimally attending to something that needs it, and then flitting to something else.

    There are no openings for zoning out by checking out the clouds or fiddling with plants or caterpillars or contemplating what I’m going to make for dinner or just totally sliding sideways into a Zen-like rocking trance and decompressing for a little while.

  8. Catana said,

    1 September 2006 at 12:39

    Janna, I’ve learned a lot about dealing with ADD, but oddly enough, NOT having a job or having to deal with people (I live alone) makes it more difficult in some ways. My time is so unstructured that there’s nothing to get hold of. All the structuring methods I’ve learned work some of the time, and then everything falls apart again. If I’d known about it when my husband was alive, he would have helped me cope with it; instead, he had to suffer through my problems without either of us knowing what to do. For so many things, I was just born too early.

    I’m afraid we’re getting off-topic and Andrea is going to scold us. :-) I do appreciate your comments.

  9. Jannalou said,

    1 September 2006 at 10:12


    I don’t think of my ADHD as controlling (and I include the H though I’m not physically hyperactive, because my brain definitely is!), but it’s definitely more than an influence. I was diagnosed when I was 28 (I’m about to turn 30), and looking back over my life, I can see how ADHD has been a very large part of how I have grown and developed – because it really is a pervasive (impacting all areas of life) developmental (across the lifespan, beginning in infancy) thing (I don’t like calling myself a disorder).

    I find, though I’m so young in my dealing with the known label, that my life goes much better when I work with the myriad ways in which ADHD affects my functioning, instead of fighting against it. When I remember to take time out at the end of the day to decompress (I need at least an hour alone in between work and going out with friends), when I use my Palm to schedule and keep track of tasks and scheduling, when I store things in clear containers so that I can see where I’ve put them (I’m incredibly visual), when I allow my writing to follow whatever tangents my mind chooses to latch onto… when I work with these things, the results are so much better than when I force myself to behave or work the way non-ADHDers do. I am less stressed out, I am more organized, and my writing has a solidity, depth, and richness about it that people respond to.

    I’m of course still working on sorting this all out. I doubt it will be simple, and it’s not as simple to work with myself as I’d like it to be. But I’m learning, and I have faith that eventually I’ll be able to manage my life without risking overload/meltdown on a weekly (well, bi-weekly now) basis.

  10. David N. Andrews BA-status, PgCertSpEd (pending) said,

    1 September 2006 at 8:07

    Keeping on topic, here’s a story of a course I taught.

    November 1999, and the last course of the year at the Summer University, and it’s me and my then-wife, Heta, doing this course I’d designed. H was translating for me.

    We got to the issue of how people who get the autistic spectrum diagnoses prefer to be described, and I did a little rant thing about being a ‘person with autism….’ (very Billy Connolly-esque, I must admit).

    “Yes? Hello… yes… I have autism… I keep in this box here (lifts box and shows open end to class)… go on, then… say hello to it… it willnae bite yez!”

    (Class proceeds to piss its collective self laughing).

    I think they got the point….. :)

  11. 1 September 2006 at 7:46

    Andrea, I hope you don’t mind being tagged for the book meme :-)

    (My fingers are crossed that you have time to do this, I think your list would be interesting.)

  12. Catana said,

    1 September 2006 at 6:50

    Janna, thanks for forcing me into a bit of clarification. Like you, I don’t mention my ADD (no H) unless it’s really relevant. I tend to think of it as “influencing” rather than controlling because I didn’t know about it until I was in my late fifties. Even now, when I have truly awful days trying to get myself sorted out, I have trouble remembering that there’s something controlling what’s going on in my head. And there’s still the conflict between resenting it for spoiling so much of my life and being one more major problem that I have to cope with, and gratitude for finally having something specific to fight against rather than constantly judging myself in negative ways.

  13. andrea said,

    1 September 2006 at 5:56

    Can we please keep this on-topic? I’d rather not drag in arguments from off-site. Thanks!

  14. David N. Andrews BA-status, PgCertSpEd (pending) said,

    31 August 2006 at 22:40

    “… damned sight harded …” -> “damned sight harder”

    Final parts of thesis work, shitty migraines constantly, and a fucked up financial arrangement (concocted by ‘professionals’ who ‘knew better than I did what I need’). That last bit is why I no longer take kindly to anyone coming to autie meeting places and immediately saying how they know what it is that we need, or making other similar types of decisions without first asking questions.

  15. David N. Andrews BA-status, PgCertSpEd (pending) said,

    31 August 2006 at 21:57


    S/he got my back up on another thread. That person’s first post was very offensive and s/he has not changed course, despite knowing that s/he is still causing offence with his/her posts.

    If s/he climbs cown of his/her high horse (PhD, APA-approved, licensed psychologist, 28 yrs working, blah-de-blah)… I can meet him/her halfway. But that sort of “I have the answers” doesn’t count with me until s/he has started to ask the questions that get the answers.

    For example, the issue of my qualifications. Diss me on that, s/he – in other settings – would be told to go and have sex with an animal somewhere other than where I happened to be. I worked – given my learning difficulties – probably a damned sight harded to get what I *do* have than s/he did to get that lot up there. That behaviour analyst isn’t there to learn or to understand us: s/he seems to be there to set us straight.

  16. Jannalou said,

    31 August 2006 at 21:44


    BA is being a bit arrogant, but so’re you. (Then again, that’s part of what we all love about you, so don’t change!)

    I’ve gone and responded to him(?) on the thread in question; we’ll see what comes of it.


    I’m glad you’re not one of those people who can’t see the other side of the coin; I don’t conceal my ADHD so much as not mention it unless it comes up in conversation. I consider it a very integral part of who I am and definitely wouldn’t be “me” without it! So I don’t consider ADHD to be merely a ‘factor that influences my life’, but something that makes me who I am.

    Luckily, diversity is what makes the world what it is! :)

  17. David N. Andrews BA-status, PgCertSpEd (pending) said,

    31 August 2006 at 21:25

    LoL – nice one, Andrea!

    S/he is still there… telling me about my qualifications.

    I can’t believe I’ve had to explain – in very clear and simple terms – to an American PhD psychologist (WTF?!) how Finland has a different way of accounting for academic achievement. It’s all there on ABFH’s blog.

    I don’t claim credentials I don’t have… not BA, but BA-status; PgCertSpEd (conditions fulfilled, award pending… which I state clearly!)… what does that person not get?! Shitting Jesus… even JBJr didn’t have a bloody problem with *that*! Have we found a person with a *worse* attitude to autistics than even JBJr?

  18. andrea said,

    31 August 2006 at 21:00

    Now, now, now David, oughtn’t that be a “person with arrogance”?!

  19. David N. Andrews BA-status, PgCertSpEd (pending) said,

    31 August 2006 at 17:35

    Interesting parallel going here.

    Over on ABFH’s blog, we have a clinically trained psychologist and behaviour analyst swanning around and trying to use his/her position and qualifications to tell us what is or isn’t the way we should let them see us. Apparently, this person’s mission is to ‘educate’ us regarding our ‘extreme behaviours’.

    Correct me if I’m wrong (and do go check this person out on ABFH’s blog before answering this question), but isn’t that person (known as Behaviour Analyst there) being a tad arrogant?

  20. 31 August 2006 at 16:35

    Oh yeah and I guess testosterone theries and the rest of it, that I am a person with bollox :)

  21. 31 August 2006 at 16:33

    There is only one word for it in the English language and I don’t suppose many will fail to anticipate what that is


  22. Catana said,

    31 August 2006 at 7:42

    We’re in the land of slip and slide here. No matter what term we’d prefer, there will always be other terms people prefer, more or less useful. I’m a person, first and foremost, even though certain factors will impact on my personhood. I have ADD, brown hair, fibromyalgia, etc., but I’m not any of them. ADD and fibro circumscribe my life to varying extents; brown hair doesn’t. But if I was still young with blonde hair, that might circumscribe my life insofar as others attached meaning to it.

    Then there’s the difference between factors that impact our lives but aren’t necessarily or always visible. I can choose to reveal or conceal my ADD and fibro, but that choice isn’t available to those with dark skin, Asian features, or the outward signs of a severe condition. Claiming your condition can (potentially) force people to deal with it on your terms rather than theirs. My blind husband refused to accept the visually challenged or visually impaired label, and we both pointedly corrected people who thought that blindness automatically meant deafness. Still, the blind are usually judged by their blindness, not their more relevant qualities (like my husband’s 170 IQ), auties are judged by their appearance, more so as they depart from the “norm.”

    Sometimes, complete identification with one’s condition is necessary, both because it can’t be escaped, and as a political and educational statement. Not my personal choice, and luckily not a necessity for me, but I understand it.

  23. David N. Andrews BA-status, PgCertSpEd (pending) said,

    31 August 2006 at 3:35

    Janna…. thanks for that! Emphasises my point perfectly… :)

    Incidentally, this whole issue of attention-*deficit* is somewhat murky water, really. The *deficit* angle is based on someone attending less that another to some particular stimulus; but this is not exactly a good way to investigate the phenomenon since, without considering all influences on behaviour, there is no way to know what it is one is dealing with (in terms of whether a person does or doesn’t ‘attend well’ to things in his/her environment). A primary example of an intrinsic influence is *interest*… someone with an ADHD diagnosis may well be very able to attend to many things, as long as s/he is actually interested in them sufficiantly. I think that the term ‘variably-attentive’ might be a better one… pretty close to your one, and still escapes the whole ‘person-first’ crap ;)

  24. Jannalou said,

    31 August 2006 at 0:40

    (I just wish there was a better term for “I have ADHD”; ADDer just doesn’t cut it for me. Maybe they’ll rename it – again – and we’ll have a more euphonic term.)

    I agree with that one completely. I like ADDult to an extent, but that doesn’t translate well into speech. I did put together a new term, “Variable Attention Span”, but that doesn’t work so well either.

    Thing is, hyperactive isn’t the right word for it, really. I have a hyperactive brain, but that’s not what most people think of when they hear the word.

    I think part of the problem is with the name itself. I mean, it’s not really an attention deficit, now, is it? Well, it can be, but it can also be an excess of attention (hyperfocus). That’s why I like my “VAS” term.

    At least it’s better than minimal brain dysfunction or whatever it used to be called.

    (David: I heard a story once about a blind girl who said she was blind, and someone corrected her and said, “Oh, no, dear, you’re vision impaired.” The blind girl said, “No, I’m blind.” People shouldn’t correct us labelled folks on what we want our label to be, as long as it’s accurate.)

  25. David N. Andrews BA-status, PgCertSpEd (pending) said,

    30 August 2006 at 21:53

    This issue is one that I deal with early in the content of my MEd thesis… the notion of how one is designated or described. My issue is that the university wants ‘person with autism’ and those whom the university would describe as such actually want to be called autistic. My last sentence on the matter was that it was up to us to choose our own description for professionals to use, rather than to have professionals force one upon us.

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