Language is powerful. It has the ability to elicit strong emotions and can influence our thoughts, actions and beliefs.

At Adoption UK we strive to use language that is inclusive, respectful and echoes the preferences of the adoption community.

We have seen increasing discussion about how people who are adopted prefer to describe themselves and we wanted to hear directly from adopted people, to find out how they felt about specific words and phrases.

We asked people who are adopted, and live in the UK, to fill in a short survey about whether they preferred to be referred to as an adoptee, an adopted person, an adopted adult/adopted young person or whether they would choose other words.

We also held a webinar discussion session about the language used in relation to adoption.

140 people responded to our survey. All nations of the UK were represented but the majority of respondents were from England. Most of those who answered were aged 41-50 but a broad age range is represented, including 21 respondents under the age of 16.

The results revealed that the term adopted person was marginally more popular than adoptee or adopted adult/adopted young person. However, there was no overwhelming favourite, with 32% choosing adopted person but 27% choosing adoptee. 25% of respondents preferred the term adopted adult or adopted young person.

We know that adoption is complex and emotive and what the survey makes clear is that when it comes to language, there is no right answer. Words can mean very different things to different people.

Here are some themes that emerged from our research.

I am adopted or I was adopted?

There was a difference in opinion between those who think of their adoption as an event from their past – something that happened at a point in time, and those who think it is a lifelong state of being which forms part of their identity. And for some, the tension between these two concepts hasn’t been resolved.

“I always find myself wondering whether I AM adopted or I WAS adopted, because both are true!”

“Never say we were adopted. We ARE adopted.”

“Adoption was a part of my life that happened in the past, like my birth. I’m uncomfortable with language which blurs history and present day.”


Being defined by adoption

Some respondents considered their adoption to be an important part of who they are. But many didn’t want it to define them, with some saying they are a person, not an adopted person.

“Adoption is a part of life. Not a definition of the whole of me.”

“Being adopted does not change who I am, it is just something that needed to happen.”

“My adoption doesn’t define who I am as a person though it has massively shaped my perspective on life.”


Highlighting difference

Many people who submitted comments didn’t want to feel singled out for being adopted. They resented the use of language which made them feel different to others.

“I am a person and being adopted makes no difference to me, I have my family and I am part of it I don’t want to be made to feel more different.”

“I don’t like to use the term adopted, or being referred to by this because it makes me feel different to other people.”


Lack of power

One sentiment that stood out was the idea of a lack of agency in relation to adoption and the language used to describe it. It was evident that some adopted people viewed adoption as something that had happened to them, that they had had no choice in. There was a desire not to use language which perpetuated their sense of powerlessness.

“Adoptee sounds a little too passive/verging on victim terminology”

“I often feel the language used is about us but not including us”

“Adoptee label is and implies a category over which we have no power. Also smacks of severance and similarities to amputee is unhelpful.”

“No-one should be defined by their unchosen group.”

The failure of adoption language to recognise adopted people’s origins was another opinion visible in the survey responses. When considering the word adoptee, one respondent wrote: “It’s too closely associated with adopters and not associated with birth families at all, even our title takes us away from them.”

Other issues raised were a tendency to infantilise adopted people and the portrayal of adopters as saviours and of adopted people as having been rescued and expected to feel lucky and grateful.

As a charity and campaigning organisation, the language we use needs to be clear and easily understood by the people we are talking to, whether they are adoptive families, politicians, journalists, social workers or teachers.

It is often necessary for us to use language that is accepted in the adoption world and it is usually vital for us to explicitly state that we are talking about adopted people.

But we are working hard to ensure our language isn’t needlessly offensive. As a result, we will increasingly move towards using the term adopted person in favour of adoptee where appropriate.

We recognise that this won’t be everyone’s first choice but we feel it is the term least likely to cause offence.

Adopted people are at the heart of everything we do at Adoption UK.

We understand the importance of continuing to listen to those with the lived experience of being adopted and speaking out with them to help make their voices heard by others. We need to keep reviewing what we say and the way we say it, and be ready and willing to make changes.

We will keep listening.