How We Define Who We Are and Why it Matters

18 Oct

autism-pfl-trainAs our course focuses somewhat on identity, I realize that my identity is somewhat scattered. Then again, who’s isn’t. As we’ve discussed in our readings, we as people have many different facets to our personalities, to our embodiments, and to our inner natures. So who gets to determine the final product, and how does we control our identity. As Ellen Samuels points out in her book, Fantasies of Identification, as much as we would like to believe that even our bodily identities are definable, fixed, and naturally determined, identification still relies heavily on the fictions by which we live. That does not mean, however, that those fictions, as unstable as they may be, are not useful, meaningful, and purposeful.

How we choose to identify is important. In fact, identification may be one of the most meaningful things we do in our lives. As Kierkegaard wrote, a duck cannot pretend to be anything but a duck, while we as humans might pretend to be many different things. And this pretense is not unimportant. In fact, this fantasy of identification may be what allows us to form, at least individually, fulfilling lives. Of course, even the category of “woman” is not immune to critique, to movable and permeable barriers. Certainly, this is true of any embodied category. It is certainly true of the category of disability. As Liat Ben-Moshe, et al. point out, disability as a category is defined broadly when marginalizing disabled people, but it becomes substantially more narrow when it comes to dividing resources for accessibility by disabled people.  Lest we forget, however, language plays a certain role in our identification.

I am, of course, hereby referring to the person-first versus identity-first debate. As a disabled person myself, disability informs a great deal of my life. I embody my disability. I live my disability. I do not wish to further disengage with my disability by distancing myself via jargon, even if the adoption of that jargon is done with the best of intentions. Like Emily Ladau, I have experienced the non-disabled stealing away my identity by giving me no other choice with which to identify myself or my community. I stand by Gloria Anzaldua’s assertion in the violence of identity and language denial. To deny me a choice of identity is to deny me community. As Ladau writes of her experience:

I vividly remember the first time I learned about person-first language (PFL). I was listening to a professor of special education speak to a group of students on disability “etiquette.” He handed out a sheet with rules on how to address or refer to a person if they had a disability. While lecturing, the professor seemed keen on calling me out, making me feel like a token, and prompting me to agree that when it came to disability, it was PFL or bust. I went along with it, but something didn’t sit well with me. I was born with my disability. It was news to me that calling myself a “disabled person” was an insult. It had always been just a fact of life, a part of who I was. And now, after all these years of calling myself what I am, here was an educator, who doesn’t even have a disability, telling me I had it all wrong.

Our identities may be constructed, but that does not defer their importance. Socially constructed reality may not be physical reality, but it is still reality. What does it mean, after all, to be authentically anything? Sure, our identities, whether we are speaking of our identities as gender identity, sexuality, racial identity, or disabled community may be constructed, but so is everyone else’s.


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