Just about overtime we want to buy something these days we need to identify ourselves. We must prove who we are. Oftentimes we have to supply documents to do this. Years ago we did this with our signature. These days a signature just does not cut it. It’s not safe and secure enough. It’s not the thing that provides us with the pass key to whatever purchase it is we are trying to make, or access we are trying to gain. The minimum required now is a pin number. That little four digit number that goes along with that fantastic little piece of plastic that we can insert or tap to access either our own funds or the funds for which we have prior authorisation to draw upon.
Protecting and securing our identity is clearly important. Establishing our identity is a key thing in living out our lives in the modern world. We identify ourselves through a lot of different ways. Our jobs, our partners, our sexual orientation, our children, our beliefs. It’s a wide and varied group of things and probably none of us would use all of them together at any single time.
My father for some years was an accountant. My grandfather was an Anglican Church minister, in the parlance of the church district he served he was known as a Rector. My wife is a teacher. I am Autistic. Yet there seems to be only one of these statements that cause people to cringe or even to say I see the person first. Yes, you guessed it, it’s the I am Âûtistic statement. For whatever reason it is irksome to some people, it makes some people uncomfortable and uncertain.
My best friend of over twenty years is a gay man. There are very few who would cringe at his choice to identify himself in this way. Does that mean being a gay man is the sum total of his identity, that he is only that and no more. I find it difficult to believe there would be many, or any, who would say that it does. Yet that is the kind of thing that is at times said when people say they are autistic.
Lot’s of justifications are made for rejecting the right of autistic people to identify themselves as autistic rather than as a person with autism. But when it comes down to it they are all inadequate and do not stand up to critique. Let’s have a look at a few.
I see the person first not the disability
This is a fairly commonly cited reason to reject identity first language. However there is a real problem here. It’s almost like the elephant in the room that no one wants to mention. What is really being said here is actually what is not being said. Think about it I see the person and not the disability. It sounds altruistic and positive and at first glance how could you have any issue with it. But, hang on a minute, how would anything be seen other than the person first who is there in one’s presence? The implication here being if I don’t say person with (insert disability here) I can’t see them as a person? There’s a big problem here that reeks of ableism, it reeks of a sense of anything other than the typical is somehow less than a person!
They are more than their disability
Another statement here about identity. I think I have a level of sympathy with this that I don’t so much with other statements. This is often a statement I hear from parents, they don’t want their child to be boxed in, to be limited to be stopped from achieving all they have the potential of achieving. This makes sense, it is said out of love and hope and dreams for a child. I believe though, that this approach thwarts the disabled person in establishing their identity as who they are, to be part of their community of peers as always in the back of their mind is that little idea that I don’t belong because I am more than my disability.
My disability does not define me
Quite similar to the previous reasoning, with a slight twist. Let’s put in context though, the person that comes to build a house happily identifies themselves as a builder. That’s their work identity, it’s probably what they often say when people ask the ubiquitous social question of “what do you do?” Would anyone for a minute say this is then the whole definitive being of that person? I don’t think so. How silly would it sound if we said a person with building qualifications built this house! No we say, and rightly so, a builder built it. A builder, an accountant, a teacher, etc. None of these completely define any of the people who wear that identity. Yet for some reason there is a cringe factor in saying an autistic person?
I think the key lesson here is to respect the way a person wants to identify and not to instruct them to do so in another way. I identify as autistic. I get upset when I am told I shouldn’t. Equally I am frustrated when people I know identify as a person with ASD for example, but, I respect their choice to identify in that way.
I am offended if someone refers to me as a person with autism. That does not describe me, it’s not something I have but something I am. No, it isn’t everything about me, I am a father, a brother, a son, a friend, and a blogger. I am all of these things yet no single one of them completely defines me yet they are all statements of identity. Just as Autistic is equally a statement of identity. Imagine if you will if I said:
I am a person with fatherism
I am a person with brotherhood
I am a person with sonhood
I am a person with friendism
I am a person with bloggism
It really is just ridiculous. So too is the use of person first language in regard to autism. I don’t have autism I am autistic.