On this site I write a lot about disability in general and often, autism specifically. The way we talk about these things is something that is debated within different circles; amongst disabled activists and advocates, autistic online communities, within health and social care settings, within educational settings and in parent and carer groups. Often, more contentiously, the debates are held between these groups. I take language seriously, I believe the words we use have an impact on the way we think about things and then ultimately the ways we behave and treat people. I also believe in listening to and prioritising the voices and/or ideas of individuals who the debated language is describing.
On this site, and in my actual life, I use ‘identity first’ language as opposed to ‘person first’ language. I refer to ‘disabled and/or autistic people’ rather than ‘people with disabilities and/or autism.’ This is a conscious decision. However if someone uses different language to describe themselves I will respect that in the ways I write or talk about them, I welcome being corrected if I do this wrong.
The primary reason I use the words Autistic and Disabled is that I don’t believe either of these things is inherently bad and therefore there is nothing wrong with using these words to describe people. Here i take my cues from disabled and/or autistic activists and advocates and the ideas behind the ‘Social Model of Disability’.
The reason I want to make this statement is not to change minds,shut down discussions or tell people they are wrong. I won’t ever refuse to engage with someone because of the language they use but I also won’t ever brush off language debates as just semantics or ‘political correctness.’ Here, as part of a desire to build spaces where ideas and creativity can run wild and people can feel free and valued, I want to make it clear that I’m conscious of the language i use and believe in the reasons behind it. I know language can be upsetting and difficult for a lot of people, especially when it is personal. In my life generally I believe in being open to unlearning and learning around my ideas about language and power and being aware of the relationship between the words I use and the way I think.
I’ll leave you with some words from the wonderful Stella Young which make me fist bump the air:
“I started changing my language. To jog your memory, back when you’re still thirty there are all kinds of fights about whether we are allowed to say ‘disabled people’ at all. It’s ‘people with disabilities’ that’s all the rage. ‘Cause we’re, like, people first, you know? And if we don’t say that we’re people, folks might get confused. But I’ve never had to say that I’m a person who’s a woman, or a person who is Australian, or a person who knits. Somehow, we’re supposed to buy this notion that if we use the term disabled too much, it might strip us of our personhood. But that shame that has become attached to the notion of disability, it’s not your shame. It took a while to learn that, so I hope that you’ve never forgotten” – Stella Young’s Letter to herself at 80 years old