The Power of Person-First Language

Addressing the Identity Question in ADHD

Published on
May 14, 2024

The language and terminology surrounding ADHD has changed significantly in the past 100 years as we’ve come to understand it more comprehensively and accurately. One of the more common discussions nowadays is the choice between person-first language and identity-first labels when discussing ADHD. In this article, we explore how words can influence perceptions and explore the delicate balance between acknowledging the person behind a diagnosis, and the world experience that comes with one.

(We also asked some of our members diagnosed with ADHD how they view person-first and identity-languages- scroll to the bottom to see Shimmer member thoughts! 💭)

What is Person-First Language?

Person-first ADHD language emphasizes the person as the primary focus, and ADHD is described as something they have. It does not define them. It involves using statements like "I have ADHD," or "I am an individual with ADHD."

Examples of person-first language:

  • Person with ADHD
  • Individual diagnosed with ADHD
  • My coworker who has ADHD

This approach emphasizes that ADHD is just one aspect of an individual's identity. By using person-first language, those with ADHD assert their agency and control over their lives, focusing on their strengths and abilities, while acknowledging the unique challenges associated with the condition. For friends, family, and other allies, it's a way to foster understanding, reduce stigma, and promote open and empathetic communication about ADHD, while showing their neurodivergent loved ones they are truly seen. They are more than just a label.

What is Identity-First Language?

Identity-first language for ADHD is a way of referring to ADHD that recognizes it as an inherent part of an individual's identity. It respects and acknowledges that for some people, ADHD is a fundamental aspect of who they are, and they may choose to embrace and celebrate it as an important part of their identity.

Examples of Identity-First Language:

  • An ADHD Brain
  • They’re an ADHD-er
  • My ADHD friend

Some individuals prefer identity language because it reflects their personal journey with ADHD as an integral aspect of who they are. They feel it acknowledges that their world experience is different than that of a neurotypical person. It allows them to embrace and celebrate their unique strengths related to neurodiversity. By using identity language, individuals may find a sense of community and a reduction of the stigma associated with ADHD.

Why Is This Conversation Important?

Conversations about language choice increase our understanding of each other. Everyone perceives and relates to ADHD in their own special way. Discussing the different ways that language can impact perceptions and assumptions opens the door for conversations about how ADHD can be viewed and framed. It encourages a more complex and nuanced understanding of ADHD, acknowledging the multifaceted nature of the condition. It also allows us to be sensitive to each other’s needs and preferences. We can learn how to empower and validate our loved ones and use language they feel supports them.

⬇️ Perspectives From Shimmer Members

“While I can appreciate both the types of language being used, I usually lean towards person-first language and am then comfortable using the other terminology in more informal settings or with people I am comfortable with, especially other ADHDers.” - Craig B.

“In my opinion, I believe [being intentional about language] helps break down stigma of folks with ADHD being lazy, messy, etc. especially in the workplace. I typically use this language at work or on LinkedIn to help draw attention to struggles/wins that I experience with my diagnosis, and have noticed the reception to be very positive. I also feel that these conversations open the door to folks feeling more comfortable approaching me with questions about ADHD, terminology associated with it, etc.” - Ashley C.

“It’s difficult to not be able to categorize people with disabilities. Language is how we identify the needs of others. However, be kind always, and thoughtful when dealing with people who have disabilities. Start the conversation with asking them how they preferred to be labeled.” - Elizabeth T.

“I think many of us agree that ADHD is already a terrible name, and no small shifts in how we talk about it will change the general perception. Instead, we should be more focused on educating the general population on WHAT ADHD is, and how many different ways it can impact those with it, as well as the people close to them.” - Chris C.

“I think person-first language helps because there is still so much stigma around ADHD. A majority of people still have a very limited understanding of what it actually is outside of the stereotype of hyperactive little boys who can’t sit still in class.” - Anonymous Shimmer User

I feel having a shorthand manner of referring to ADHD and ADHD-typical actions downplays the significance that the diagnosis has on people throughout their day-to-day lives. If someone were to say "She is an ADHDer," this would be interpreted by most people in society (except for those who live with the condition) as someone who is distractible, lacks focus, or is overly energetic, when in reality this should refer to someone who has to overcome ADHD symptoms.” - Anonymous Shimmer User

Reframing ADHD: Language Matters

The debate between person-first language and identity language for ADHD is a powerful reminder that words matter. The way we speak to one another matters. Choosing to listen to someone matters. Words reflect our diverse experiences and acknowledge how people view themselves within the ADHD community. The ultimate goal of this conversation is to foster understanding, reduce stigma, and as always, promote neurodiversity.

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