Putting identity first is important
Tuesday, Apr 04, 2017 06:00 am
Identity is an important thing. Anyone who has experienced the unfortunate impact of having a credit card or social insurance number stolen knows just how valuable one’s identity can be – and if you’re disabled, the concept of identity takes on another layer of meaning entirely.
Recently, Sesame Street debuted a new character – a four-year-old muppet named Julia, who loves to draw, has a knack for remembering song lyrics and is autistic. As wonderful as it is to see this kind of inclusion at a level that even small children will be able to understand, one thing really jumped out at me while I was reading the many articles published about Julia’s introduction.
“Meet Julia, the first Sesame Street muppet with autism,” read one headline. A video introduced her as “Julia, a four-year-old with blazing red hair, bright green eyes and autism.” The thing about autism, though, is that it’s not really like having red hair or green eyes, which are cosmetic things that can be easily altered with the right dye or contact lenses. And it’s not like having cancer or some other curable illness that doesn’t impact who you are inside. Autism is a neurological developmental condition and is an inherent part of an autistic individual’s identity.
But we’re encouraged to look past that – to see the person, not the disability. This is where person-first language (PFL) comes in. Using the phrase “autistic person” is disrespectful and insulting, according to the people who prefer PFL. Instead, we should recognize humanity first, and then disability.
The problem with this is it implies there is something wrong with being disabled, with being autistic. By attempting to separate people from their disabilities, we’re saying there’s something shameful about those conditions – and that for someone disabled to be considered a whole person, we need to use specific language to encourage others to see past this appalling affliction.
For many autistic people, using identity-first language gives them power over their disabilities – and their identities. It is impossible to separate a person from their autism, and by recognizing that, we can better appreciate autistic people for the value and worth they can offer.
“Ultimately, we are accepting that the individual is different from non-autistic people – and that that’s not a tragedy,” reads an essay by Lydia Brown, intern with the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN). “We are showing that we are not afraid or ashamed to recognize that difference.”
That’s why organizations like ASAN are important. Unlike other “charities” like Autism Speaks, which doesn’t have any autistic members on its board and actively funds research centred on eliminating autism, ASAN’s slogan is “nothing about us without us.”
This April, during Autism Awareness Month, support organizations that support autistic people and let them make their voices heard.