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When to Use Identity-First Language vs. Person-First Language in the Neurodiversity Community

dyslexia neurodiversity

We’re seeing the term neurodiversity come up in a lot of different places from social media, to newspapers, to articles, and more. It is a global conversation that we should all be looking at with a fresh view and perspective.

We are advocating for a shift. We want to help develop self-awareness and identity of what it means to have dyslexia and what it means to be a neurodivergent thinker. Surrounding the discussion of self-awareness really speaks from the social-emotional side of how we work with children.

Here’s an example: If we were to begin working with a middle schooler who has had years of negative self-talk, we would probably not jump right in with a cheerleading discussion about all of their strengths. 

Instead, we first need to acknowledge them and begin to understand them. We might say something instead like, “I understand that this has been really hard for you so far. And here's why…” and, “I know that you may be thinking this or that, but here's how we're going to try and work together.” 

This approach…

  • Honors that there is a relationship first.
  • Meets them where they are at.
  • Then, gradually shifts into self-awareness and helps them understand how they learn. 

We should help students see themselves as more than their dyslexia. We want to build up our students' self-esteem and help them realize that every one of us brings something beautiful into this world.

A big part of this is understanding and accepting who you are. In terms of having dyslexia, that means understanding that dyslexia falls under that neurodivergent umbrella and it is part of who you are. It can not be separated out.

Which brings up the conversation around how we speak about it.

When to Use Identity-First Language vs. Person-First Language

There is a conversation happening around if we should use identity neurodivergent first language or person-first language. If you are an educator, it’s likely that at some point in your schooling, you are taught to use person-first language. For example, you would use a person with dyslexia as opposed to a dyslexic learner

There is a shift in our neurodiverse communities where you will often hear identity-first language being used. So, when you see references to dyslexic learners, that is where that is coming from. 

The use of identity-first language creates a sense of ownership. It comes from the understanding that this is a brain function variance. It is not something that can be pulled out, it is part of the person. Therefore, people who use identity-first language want that to be honored and to take into account that diagnosis is inherent and part of their neurological wiring. 

You will see many people in the neurodivergent community using identity-first language. For those who are not neurodivergent, we should leave it to that person to let us know whether they would prefer to use identity-first or person-first language. We understand that many educators had specific training and professional development on the use of identity-first versus person-first language and we know that there has also been a shift. It really is going to depend on the individual and the community. 

This is a valuable conversation to have about a person taking ownership and wanting to be acknowledged and recognized for who they are - that they're a person, just like all of us, with both strengths and things that they may find challenging.


To continue this conversation, check out our latest episode of the Together in Literacy podcast. If you like what you hear, don’t forget to rate, leave a positive review, and subscribe!


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