Earlier today, I came across this great comic strip by Christine Deneweth about her experiences with schizophrenia and neurotypical privilege (link includes a transcript and image descriptions), in which she discusses the media’s damaging portrayal of schizophrenia, the pressure to “act neurotypical”, and the risk of workplace discrimination and even unfair incarceration faced by schizophrenic people. It’s really worth a read. Go on. I’ll wait.
After I read the comic strip, and because apparently I never ever learn my lesson, I read the comments on Everyday Feminism’s Facebook post promoting the piece – only to discover that most of the comments didn’t engage with the actual content at all, and instead criticised Deneweth’s use of the identity-first term “schizophrenic” (as opposed to person-first language e.g. “person with schizophrenia”). In other words, mostly neurotypical people telling the artist she’s somehow managing to stigmatise herself rather than thinking about the actual stigmatisation and ableism she’s described as coming from neurotypical people. Because obviously neurotypical people themselves are never the problem amirite?(/sarcasm) To be fair to Everyday Feminism, they responded to the worst offenders with this article by Caley and Creigh Farinas about the problems with policing disabled people’s identities (also really worth a read), but the fact that articles like this have to exist just goes to show that this same thing happens to disabled people talking about their experiences all – the – time.
Personally, I am autistic and I (like many others, although of course not everyone) prefer to use identity-first language to describe this fact. This is because I don’t think “autistic” is a bad thing; it’s not a negative quality, it’s a neutral quality. I feel that shoehorning in “person-with” where an adjective better suits the sentence sends the message that you can’t see “autistic” as a person without trying to separate the autism from the person, which isn’t possible; autism is a part of who I am, and I wouldn’t be the same person at all without it. Using identity-first language doesn’t mean I’m defining myself exclusively though autism – to give just one example, my gender doesn’t define me either but you don’t often come across the term “person with femaleness”! In my opinion, if neurotypical people are so keen on “putting the person first” then they need to demonstrate that in their actions, not just their words.
But my opinion doesn’t matter one iota here. The only person whose opinion matters is the person describing their own disability, and nobody has the right to police how someone identifies. It doesn’t matter if you’re some sort of professional expert on the relevant condition. It doesn’t matter if you know someone with the relevant condition (something that neurotypical people, apparently unable to imagine any of us having our own perspective, often equate to being that someone to claim authority). I don’t even think it matters that much if you share the relevant condition, although of course you remain free to use different language to describe yourself. You do not have the right to police how someone else describes themselves, especially regarding marginalised groups you don’t belong to.
The main reason this infuriates me so much has nothing to do with any of my concerns about person-first language itself. Instead, it’s because abled people seem to use this same-old-same-old argument to prevent meaningful conversation about disability and ableism, and to conveniently avoid engaging with the problems being highlighted (and, in turn, their possible roles in those problems).
Neurodivergent people are saying, over and over again, “we are being discriminated against, we are being portrayed unfairly and harmfully, we are not given adequate support and accommodations, we are mocked and bullied, we are excluded from the workplace and social spaces and other aspects of public life, we are sometimes incarcerated or abused or even killed just because our brains are wired differently to yours”.
But the only thing neurotypical people ever seem to take from that is “you’re the one oppressing yourself with your sentence structure”.
Telling someone how they should and shouldn’t describe their disability – especially at the expense of what they’re actually saying – is ableist. Or maybe it’s an action with ableism. Either way, it really needs to stop.