Person First vs Identity First Language
Language is important. The words that we use, the order we put them in, and the way that we communicate all impact the message we are delivering. Whether we are speaking face to face, writing an email, texting, calling a friend on the phone, etc. – our words matter. The impact we have can be profoundly positive, or very harmful and negative, or even somewhere in the middle (more neutral). Sometimes, we get to see the impact our words have. Sometimes, we may never know. Regardless: our words matter.
Because language is so important, it is worth considering how we speak out for ourselves and other people. One concept that is heavily debated in this area, is the concept of Person First language (or, on the flip side, Identity First Language).
Person First Language
Person First language refers to the practice of putting a person (a noun) first – before any describers of the person. This can sometimes be empowering – honoring a person despite some kind of physical or mental limitation they have (which is typically the context that this comes up in).
For example, Person First language would say: “I have anxiety”, rather than “I’m an
anxious person.” Can you see the difference?
Sometimes, having that separation is nice – it reminds us that we are people, and we exist outside of this diagnosis/condition. The same can be applied to other mental conditions: “has schizophrenia” vs “is schizophrenic”; “has clinical depression” vs “is depressed.” It can also be used to describe physical disabilities – saying that a person uses a wheelchair, rather than saying they are wheelchair-bound. Or, to say that a person has a disability, rather than saying a person is disabled.
Identity First Language
On the flip side, some people argue for more Identity First language, especially in certain communities. The argument here is generally that if something is part of your identity, and is integral to who you are, it should be stated as such. For example, many in the Autism community prefer “I am Autistic” over “I have Autism” (or similar wording). Lydia Brown argues this point in her article, stating she prefers the Identity First language as it honors her identity, and serves as a reminder that being Autistic is not an inherently bad thing! Her article is linked below and provides a lot of really good points and further resources.
Similarly, this type of language can be seen in the LGBTQ+ community – we typically
refer to ourselves as our gender and sexual identities (“I’m a straight woman,” or “I’m a trans
man.” For example). The argument for Identity First language is the same – this is a part of what makes us us, it is a formative part of our identity that does not need to be separated.
Most of the articles that I found (linked below) on this topic advocate for the right to
make your own decision, and encourage us to be mindful of others’ perspectives. It is up to you to determine what feels more comfortable – but I also encourage you to remember that your words do matter and can make a difference. Even when talking about yourself, to yourself or to others, consider what sounds better to you. Is somebody an addict, or a person with an addiction? Is somebody disabled, or do they have a disability?
One thing that seemed to be common, on either side of the debate, was the
encouragement to avoid words such as “suffers from.” Whichever type of language you choose, the aim is to respect a person, regardless if they are neurotypical and able-bodied, or neurodivergent and have disabilities. Saying that somebody “suffers from” something (physical or mental) automatically implies a negative connotation. Particularly if they “suffer from” something chronic or lifelong, this can be very disheartening!
All in all – neither type is better or worse in all situations. Ask yourself what you think
sounds better, and be prepared to hear opposing opinions! It’s okay to learn, grow, and change. Having an understanding of the debate and making an informed choice, while being respectful of others, is generally a safe road to take.
Brown, L. (n.d.). Identity-first language. Autistic Self Advocacy Network. Retrieved September 15, 2022, from https://autisticadvocacy.org/about-asan/identity-first-language/
Okundaye, J. (2021, April 23). Ask a self-advocate: The pros and cons of person-first and
identity-first language. Ask a Self-Advocate: The Pros and Cons of Person-First and
Identity-First Language. Retrieved September 15, 2022, from
People first language. TCDD. (n.d.). Retrieved September 15, 2022, from
Kaci Crook is a student Mental Health Counselor Intern at Cypress Wellness Center. She helps individuals and couples going through a variety of issues. In her work, Kaci incorporates Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Narrative Therapy, and mindfulness. Click "Schedule Now" to schedule an appointment or a 10-minutes phone consultation.