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Should we say ‘dyslexic people or ‘people with dyslexia’?

Published on
December 28, 2022 at 12:00:00 AM PST December 28, 2022 at 12:00:00 AM PSTth, December 28, 2022 at 12:00:00 AM PST

If you or somebody you know has dyslexia, you might have wondered how best to refer to it in your day-to-day conversations. It’s a more complex and contested issue than many of us might think, and it’s important to be aware of the facts when it comes to using person-first and identity-first language. 



The evolution of language 


Language is constantly changing. 


In the year 700 we’d greet somebody on their birthday by saying bliðe gebyrddæg sie þe. If we met that same friend on their birthday in the year 1400, we’d greet them by saying the standard birthday greeting of I wish thee well on the year; or perhaps just well-wishes to ye, and in 2022 we’d simply say happy birthday. The concept is the same, but language adapts over time, and leaves us with a series of different semantics and the phrase adapts and is interpolated. 


For instance, the oldest form of the phrase – bliðe gebyrddæg sie þe; ‘a happy birthday be to you’ – tells us that the well-wisher hopes that a happy birthday happens to us. The second phrase, I wish thee well on the yearwishes us well on the year ahead, but doesn’t tell us what kind of day they hope we have today specifically.The third, modern option is more general, largely implying that the birthday itself is a cause to be happy, an identification. So, in the three eras, we have three distinct meanings when we break down the phraseology, even though they refer to the same context.   


Phraseology, in a general sense, refers to our modes of expression and how we delineate and describe. It’s the difference between ‘I had to clean the oven today’ and ‘I got to clean the oven today’ – both times the ovens are cleaned, but there are different implications that we can raise from the way we choose to describe the action. ‘Got to’ implies an opportunity, something to look forward to; ‘had to’ implies necessity; something we didn’t have a choice in. 



Identity-first language and dyslexia 


There is a debate in the global dyslexia community at the moment about whether we should refer to somebody (or ourselves) using ‘they’re dyslexic’ or ‘they have dyslexia’. Like the different modes of happy birthday over the ages, the meanings are subtly different when we break them down into the language of implication. 


“Dyslexic” seems to imply that dyslexia is part of the self, something that is built-in and intrinsic to the person we’re talking about. This is identity-first language (IFL). 


“Somebody with Dyslexia” seems more to imply that the person in question possesses dyslexia, an extension of themselves rather than something that’s a part of them. This is person-first language (PFL). 




The history of the debate 


We see the IFL/PFL debate arise properly in discussions around the year 1980 in communities of blind people and deaf people, with many advocacy organisations and charities campaigning for a switch to PFL as a means to stop defining people by their conditions. This language tended to stick as awareness campaigns gained steam, so many would say something like ‘a person with deafness’ or ‘a person who is deaf’ instead of ‘a deaf person.’ However, there was pushback throughout the entirety of the 90s about whether this was the right thing to do. Debate hinged on the idea of being something rather than having something, and whether the separation of person and condition implied a sense of shame instead of equality. 


One of the best-documented instances of the debate is in communities of autistic people and their advocates. On the early internet, there emerged a trend towards neurotypical people using PFL as a means of using more polite and respectful language relevant to autism and trying to make sure that the person to which you’re referring wasn’t reduced only to their autism, or it became a dominant factor in how we viewed an entire person with views, thoughts, skills and feelings. 



However, a large number of autistic people pushed back against the idea and felt that PFL was, in semantic, removing a vital part of their identity and trying to separate out a part of themselves that was crucial in their experiences and how they experienced the world. Around 2012 we see a resurgence of IFL in these communities, with people describing themselves as ‘I’m autistic’ or ‘autistic and proud’, and along with it came a sense of taking the phrase back for the community.   


So, in much the same way as bliðe gebyrddæg sie means I wish thee well on the year which means happy birthday, the accepted phraseology has changed over time whilst saying the same thing, but with a different set of associations and meanings – some positive and some negative – inherent in the way we choose to say it. From about 2015-onwards, we see the phraseology debate spread into communities set up around other neurodivergent conditions. It’s become a hot topic in the dyslexia community both on Twitter and on LinkedIn this year, but many people are still on the fence about which one they prefer (if any). Some people like to be separated and seen as a person before a diagnosis, and some people see it as a conversationalist choosing not to engage with an important and relevant part of the person before them. 




Is PFL offensive? 


Some people think so. In fact, many people go as far as to say that PFL is dehumanising, discriminatory in seeking to separate the person from their diagnosis, or an act in removing conversational focus from things that they subconsciously think of as less than desirable such as being neurodivergent. Some people completely disagree, and prefer it because it implies that somebody is seeing the person before the condition: it’s generally a matter of opinion, but by sheer weight of numbers people seem to be voting on the side of ‘dyslexic person’ in 2022, perhaps as society is becoming more ‘dyslexia-positive’ as opposed to simply ‘accepting’ of dyslexia.  




‘A student with dyslexia’ – the language of inference and implication   


 Some sources on social media have raised the idea that the phrase ‘a student with dyslexia’ is more palatable for children as it avoids mimicking the value judgment language that we ascribe to good and bad within an educational setting. They might see classmates described in their peer groups as a ‘naughty’ student; a ‘creative’ student’; a ‘dedicated’ student; and therefore, the phrase ‘a dyslexic student’ might feel like more than the sum of its parts – and most students will compute dyslexia within that value judgment framework as a negative epithet.    


‘A student with’-style descriptions of dyslexia tends to mimic factual statements more, such as ‘a student with red hair’ or ‘a student with a green bag’ and can be argued to frame dyslexia as a statement of fact, rather than ascribing merit or judgment. This argument does break down when we consider the sheer malleability of the English language and how easy it is to say ‘a student with bad behaviour’, or ‘a student with a natural gift for art’, but there is apparent a tone shift between a learner being a dyslexic student and a student with dyslexia that younger people might pick up on.  


The problem is that in doing so, we de-personalise dyslexia and make it something a young learner might see as on par with having red hair or a green bag and we remove it from their sense of self. It’s a personal idea that opinions across the global dyslexia community vary on wildly, but many see dyslexia as an inbuilt part of their sense of self and part of what makes them who they are.   


In removing that idea from the language we use to describe learners in their earliest encounters with the label, we might be isolating dyslexia from the self and teaching young people that it’s something to compartmentalise. Far from an understanding of it as something intrinsic that brings many people pride. 




So, which do we use for dyslexia? 


There is debate. Medical sources in the UK often tend to still use PFL, and this is standard across most medical and official sources globally. It’s generally regarded by businesses as being ‘more polite’, even if the actuality is that it has the effect of separating somebody from something they see as a vital part of themselves – and just because one group of people thinks it’s polite, it doesn’t mean it’s right, or right for everyone. 


Many people who have dyslexia tend to err on the side of IFL want to include dyslexia in this way as a vital part of their identity. There does appear to be an age gap emergent though, as it tends to be younger people who have grown up under the neurodiversity positivity movement who are more comfortable saying ‘I’m dyslexic’ rather than ‘I have dyslexia’, which is the one that tends to be favoured by older generations. This might be as a result of the language movements during the 1980s, or simply just down to growing up in a time where people were less vocal about dyslexia positivity, and they aren’t as comfortable delineating it as a vital part of themselves.   


The debate isn’t as pronounced in the dyslexia community as it is in others, but we still have a duty to respond to people in ways that they choose and are comfortable with. The simple answer is we use whatever people want us to: and if this means we ask the question… then we have to ask the question.


Some people have taken to adding this information into their email signatures, or biographies on social media as a means of letting people know beforehand, but if this kind of info isn’t available, it’s our job to reach out first and make sure we’re keeping inclusivity at the heart of the language we use day-to-day. When referring to groups of people, some individuals have taken to including both: ‘People with Dyslexia/Dyslexic People’-style, so that nobody feels excluded – it’s not a perfect solution, but it doesn’t leave anybody on the outside, either.  


It’s always better to ask than to assume, so let’s go forward into 2023 being as inclusive and as accessible for everyone in how we communicate.