When I was looking over a rubric for a research paper, I noticed that my professor had noted that ‘person-first’ writing was a stylistic requirement. At first I thought it was a typo, and she meant first-person, but when it showed up twice in that same document, I Googled it. Person-first writing is a style in which a person with a disability is described first as a person, with the disability following. (See how I did that? “Person with a disability,” not “disabled person.” That’s person-first writing!)
This is a new APA requirement. The idea is pretty simple: disabled people should be viewed first as people, with their disability being secondary.
There are a few issues with this idea that have already been addressed. The first is that this style of writing is clunky and awkward. Deaf culture advocates are against it because they see deafness as a difference rather than a disability, so they prefer to be called ‘deaf people.’ Some autism advocates don’t appreciate the style because it implies that the autism can be separated from the person, when in fact autism is an intrinsic aspect of all autistic people.
I don’t like it, but for a different reason than those listed above. I think that specifically targeting a population for an entirely different type of grammar is much more damaging than putting the adjective before the noun.
For almost every noun/adjective pair in English, the adjective precedes the noun. In terms of people, here are some examples: black people, white people, rich people, good people, red-haired people, serious people, beach people, city people… The adjective comes first in almost every situation. I was trying to think of some examples where this isn’t the case, and I came up with a few. Usually it’s when the adjective is kind of lengthy, like ‘a person with a bad haircut,’ ‘a person with a long history of troubled relationships,’ or ‘people with low self-esteem.’ In addition, there are a some situations where personhood is implied but not expressed outright, such as ‘dog-owner,’ or ‘Native American’, or ‘wine-lover.’
To classify disabled people as needing their own special grammatical expression orientalizes them. (Thank you, Macalester, for introducing me to this term!) It sets them apart from all other kinds of people. In fact, person-first writing does the exact opposite of what it’s trying to do: by trying so hard to emphasize the humanhood of disabled people, it dehumanizes them by separating them from all other groups in humanity.