People are often surprised when I call myself “disabled.” Over the years, society has shifted toward person-first language (i.e. person with a disability) to describe disability. However, many people within the disabled community prefer identity-first language (i.e. disabled person). Much of this confusion comes from the unconscious but prevalent understanding of disability as inherently negative. Disabled people rail against this narrative, insisting that disability is just another part of the human condition. I, too, rail against this narrative because my disability is integral to my identity.
As a child with cerebral palsy, I tried to distance myself from my disability. I was the only visibly disabled student at my public elementary school. The administration did everything it could to prevent me from going there. When I was in kindergarten, I was taken to my designated elementary school on one of the short buses and made to walk the entire school — which included multiple floors and heavy doors that I had to open myself — to show them that I could. None of my nondisabled classmates had to complete this tour, but as a disabled kid, I had to prove that I was fit to attend my elementary school. Luckily, in that instance, I passed the test and was permitted to go to the same school as my sister and neighbors.
However, the elementary school tribulations didn’t end there. When I was in first grade, a physical therapist and teacher tried to have me removed from school. They argued that I had ADHD, and when I struggled to learn how to read, the teacher said I was “too disabled” to attend mainstream school. I was able to finish elementary school there (thanks to my mom, who fought against the school), but the experience had lasting effects.
For years, I struggled with impostor syndrome over whether I belonged in school or not. And more than that, I wrestled with my disability. All I wanted was to be normal and not have to worry about how others perceived me. It wasn’t until college that I felt truly comfortable with my disability. After years of only being immersed in the disabled community for the three weeks I attended summer camp, I discovered the online disabled community. Activists in this community who are more eloquent and knowledgeable than I could ever hope to be make a point to use identity-first language because they see their disability as an integral part of their identity.
My disability does define me, and acknowledging that helps me feel seen in a world that tries to erase me.
When I started calling myself disabled, I received some pushback from nondisabled people, mainly those who work with disabled folks or are studying to work with disabled folks. They told me I was “wrong” for saying I was disabled instead of a person with a disability. When I asked them to elaborate, they explained that their professors in speech pathology or special education classes taught them that person-first language is more correct because it emphasizes that the disabled person is a person first and foremost, and that their disability shouldn’t define them. But my disability does define me, and acknowledging that helps me feel seen in a world that tries to erase me.
I cannot separate myself from my disability because I’ve been disabled my entire life. The only lens that I’ve seen the world through is that of a disabled cisgender white woman. My worldview is shaped by the identities I hold, both privileged and marginalized. Like many people, I’m an enigma. While my disability and womanhood put me at a societal disadvantage, I’m shielded from experiencing racism and transphobia by my skin color and gender identity. In this way, my perspective and who I am are shaped by all aspects of my identity, including my disability.
This is why I urge others to use identity-first language. Because disability doesn’t negate my personhood, there’s no reason to emphasize that I am a person before my disability. Of course I’m a person. But I’m also disabled, and I want that part of my identity to be acknowledged, too.