Many style guides recommend person-first language, but disabled communities are split

Earlier this year, I had an article published in the Tempest which listed disabled activists that people should follow on Twitter. While I received positive feedback, I received a few comments, including from people accusing me of being ableist, telling me that I should have referred to my subjects as people with disabilities, not disabled people.

As a disabled journalist, I prefer to use identity-first language (i.e. disabled person), instead of person-first language (i.e. person with disability), because I believe that disabilities are often a central part to a person’s identity, especially when an article centres around the topic of disability.

Many disability activists across the United States and Canada use identity-first language. In particular, the deaf and autistic communities tend to prefer identity-first language, according to Beth Haller, a journalism professor at Towson University

There are people in disabled communities who do favour person-first language, which needs to be respected because people deserve autonomy over how they refer to their disability. 

While there is more debate in disability communities and media as a whole about whether to use identity or person-first language, many Canadian journalism style guides do not reflect this. 

For example, the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ “Recommended Guidelines on Language and Terminology – Persons With Disabilities” manual, which the government of Canada’s site links to, instructs media personnel to use person-first language to ensure that “the person comes first. The disability comes second.” 

As someone with multiple disabilities, this logic irritates me, as my identity is in part tied to my disabilities. James L. Cherney, a communications professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, and the author of the book Ableist Rhetoric, first used person-first language when he started to study into ableist rhetoric and disability over 16 years ago.

Cherney now finds that person-first language insinuates that there is negativity associated with disability. For instance, he explains that “one wouldn’t say a person with intelligence. They would say an intelligent person.”

Cherney notes though that it is important to honour the language preference, whether it is identity or person-first. “The decision of what language to use is in the hands of someone you’re communicating with,” Cherney said in an interview. 

Many Canadian style guides recommend calling a disabled person what they wish to be called, which also means that journalists must reach out to a disabled subject and confirm a person’s preference.

I agree with this practice, as it gives disabled people control over how they are referred to in relation to their disability, whether it is identity-first language or person-first. 

Another two issues about these style guides when discussing disability is that they are either outdated or do not go into detail about terms relating to the disability community. 

The guide that the government of Canada’s website recommended using? It was based on a study from 2005. A lot can change in 14 years, so it is important that new and ongoing research is performed. 

Style guides should also go far beyond referencing a few terms. People in Canadian media should look to the National Center on Disability and Journalism, based at Arizona State University, which created and continues to update a Disability Language Style Guide

For each term, NCDJ gives a background and also gives a recommendation of what language to use and not to use, with their reasoning. While this guide is not perfect, it is definitely a start.

The reason why Canadian style guides still recommend using person-first language without recognizing that many disabled people use identity-first language may be because Canadian media has trouble covering disability as a whole.

As disabled journalist Aimee Louw highlights in her Canadaland article “Where is the Disability Beat in Canada?,” coverage on disability issues and disabled people is “relegated to the area of ‘special interest,’ not an important part of daily news.” As a result, unfortunately, issues affecting the day-to-day lives of disabled people are often left out of news.

Canadian media does need to do a better job covering disabled people and respecting how they wish to be identified, and one way to do this is through style guides. While they have a long way to go, some publications are starting to use identity-first language. Whether it is because of internal memos or the decision of specific writers and editors, it is unclear.

An example of an article that does a fair job using both identity-first language and is not a special interest story is “Disability advocates raise concerns over Ontario plan to let e-scooters on roads” in the Toronto Star. 

This article highlights an ongoing issue that could affect disabled Canadians, but is not inspiration porn nor is it just covering a tragedy. While grave issues that disabled Canadians face should be covered, day-to-day accessibility issues and projects that disabled people are working on should be highlighted as well.

In order to help better represent disabled people in media, Canadian media should rely on a source’s preference on whether they prefer identity-first language or person-first language, but this also involves recognizing that a growing number of people in the disability community are starting to prefer identity-first language. 

This will not fix the disability beat, but it will better represent the needs and representation of disabled people in Canada.