Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



Committee Chair(s)

Jared Colton


Jared Colton


Christine Cooper-Rompato


Alma Burgess


The disability community has been a historically marginalized group and continues to be. Many advocates for inclusive language feel uncomfortable around the disability community because they are uncertain how to act and speak. There are two forms of language syntaxes that people primarily use to refer to someone with a disability: People-first language and Identity-first language. People-first language identifies someone first, then refers to their disability, such as “person with autism.” The second framework, Identity-first language, includes referring to someone’s disability first, then by another attribute. In other words, “autistic person.”

Both forms of language syntaxes have many reasons as to why they are preferred by individuals, disability groups, and advocates. This conversation has become very heated because people are concerned with using empowering language that helps to reduce the marginalization many people with disabilities face.

In order to understand negotiating language within disability groups, this essay focuses on two groups: the Deaf and The mental health communities. [1] I use James Paul Gee’s Discourse theory and apply certain terms like values, mushfaking, and literacy to the two communities. These two communities have different values, varying rules of acceptance, and many ways that defines someone as a “true” member of the Discourse. For example, in general, the Deaf community prefers Identity-first language and the mental health community prefers People-first language.

Understanding how language interacts within each group is vital in understanding affirmative societal perceptions. Furthermore, people do not necessarily need to be worried about offending members of Discourse communities, if “outsiders” learn more about each culture, negotiate our space, and are open to being corrected on language syntaxes. People-first and Identity-first languages go beyond what is “right” or “correct.” Instead, the language choice depends on the situation, the individual, and community membership and is much more complex than simply choosing between two syntaxes.

[1] The “mental health community” is not a proper noun and remains uncapitalized. The “D” in “Deaf” is capitalized because the term indicates pride and culture, not just someone who is without hearing. This concept is discussed later on in the paper.

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Accessibility Commons