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Identity and Representation in the 2017 Disability March

Talea Anderson

Literature Review

Linguistic Representations of Disability

One analytical lens for this webtext will be use of self-identifying language—in particular, use of person-first vs. identity-first constructions—when discussing disability. Advocates of person-first language argue that it privileges personhood over disability whereas identity-first phrasing points to a person's disability as their key identifier. An example of person-first phrasing is "person with Autism" as opposed to an identity-first construction: "Autistic person."

Person-first language dates back to the Denver Principles, a statement composed by AIDS activists in 1983 to argue that identity-first language tended to victimize people with AIDS/HIV (Advisory Committee of the People with AIDS, 1983). In subsequent years, person-first language was further recommended by advocacy groups, speech-language pathologists, and federal and state agencies (Centers for Disease Control, n.d.; Folkins, 1992; Kapitan, 2017). These groups posited policies on the basis of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which stated that language use shapes perceptions of the world (Sapir, 1929; Whorf, 1940). Essentially, person-first advocates have argued that people—once identified wholly with their disabilities—can be more readily dismissed by society as outsiders or victims of their own misfortune.

Some identity-first advocates, like sociologist C. Edwin Vaughan (1997), have countered these claims by arguing that person-first language calls attention to the disabled person's "marred identity" while doing nothing to make society more equitable. Cara Liebowitz (2015) further argued that person-first language presumes that "disability is something negative, something that you shouldn't want to see." For this same reason, advocates of Deaf culture have also criticized person-first language, identifying deafness as a point of pride that is undermined by phrasing that suggests disability as a misfortune best pushed aside and obscured by euphemism (Gallaudet University, n.d.). Making pointed reference to some person-first advocates, Kathleen Downes (2014) likewise underlined the point that identity choices shouldn't be pushed onto disabled people by those who have no first-hand experience.

Ultimately, these debates provide context for understanding how people with disabilities might choose to identify themselves online and the meanings they may wish to communicate through person-first or subject-first statements.

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