The Ultimate Guide To Inclusive Language For Disabilities

The Ultimate Guide To Inclusive Language For Disabilities

The words we use, and the language these words make up, shape so many of our attitudes and perceptions with the people we encounter. When a person lives with a disability, communicating with them in a way that does not make them feel different can help make strides towards inclusivity and improving their accessibility. 

Inclusive language for disabilities is using terminology that does not alienate a person living with a disability and ensuring they have full accessibility to the services, society, and situational supports that empower them. 

Whether you are new to the disability landscape or you have worked with people with disabilities previously, there is an array of inclusive language that you can learn and utilise for the benefit of people living with disabilities and the general public. Learning to interact with the disability community appropriately improves their lived experience and ensures inclusive accessibility.

Why is Inclusive Language for Disabilities Important?

Everyone you meet is living through their own joys and struggles that most of us know nothing about. Being kind is the least any of us can do to share our humanity. When we interact with or describe a person living with a disability, using inclusive language ensures that every individual can fully participate in the conversation Most people who live with disabilities have experienced some level of discrimination or different treatment because of their disability. A person-centred, universal respect in our language and treatment of others ensures people with disabilities always have their rightful  place at the table.

What Does it Mean to Use Inclusive Language for Disabilities?

Using inclusive language for disabilities is a means to discuss or speak to any person with disabilities in a way that respects their personhood. It is about using respectful terminology and addressing a person in a way that puts them first and focuses on their participation in life and society. It also means avoiding using terms that are less than inclusive or even disrespectful. 

What Language is Appropriate to Use to be Inclusive?

There is a wide scope of acceptable language to use when describing or speaking to a person with disabilities. A useful resource replicated below is provided by the United Kingdom’s Disability Unit which can serve as a general guide for what terms not to use, as well as appropriate alternatives. While this list is not comprehensive or authoritative, it provides an excellent starting point to understand how these discussions can be directed.

(the) handicapped, (the) disableddisabled (people)
afflicted by, suffers from, victim ofhas [name of condition or impairment]
confined to a wheelchair, wheelchair-boundwheelchair user
mentally handicapped, mentally defective, retarded, subnormalwith a learning disability (singular) with learning disabilities (plural)
cripple, invaliddisabled person
spasticperson with cerebral palsy
mental patient, insane, madperson with a mental health condition
deaf and dumb; deaf mutedeaf, user of British Sign Language (BSL), person with a hearing impairment
the blindpeople with visual impairments; blind people; blind and partially sighted people
an epileptic, diabetic, depressive, and so onperson with epilepsy, diabetes, depression or someone who has epilepsy, diabetes, depression
dwarf; midgetsomeone with restricted growth or short stature
fits, spells, attacksseizures

Source: UK Disability Unit

How to Talk About People With Disabilities

A general rule of thumb when talking about people with disabilities is to focus on the person and not their impairment or disability. This means it may be preferable to refer to them as a person with a disability rather than a disabled person. By placing the “person” first, followed by their “disability” if relevant to your discussion, you can shift the emphasis to their personhood and their disability is simply something that shapes their lived experience. This is known as person-first language and avoids labeling a person incorrectly. 

How to use Disability Terminology

You may come across words and phrases that are often used within the disability communities, or perhaps you want to make sure you’re utilising the correct terms when addressing the subjects surrounding disability. We have a few examples to get you started: 

Access vs Accessibility – Whereas access is when you have a pass or special access to something that may be restricted, accessibility is the design of products, services, devices, or environments. Sometimes, the accessibility of a place will need to be addressed to accommodate everyone with limited mobility.

Disabled person vs persons with disabilities – in some countries, the correct terminology when referring to someone with disabilities is ‘disabled person.’ However, the United Nations recommends using people-first language with the term ‘persons with disabilities.’

Easy read – an accessible format of text that has been “adapted” rather than translated for people who may have difficulty understanding written text.

Help, support, and assistance – all of these have different connotations and are not interchangeable. Whereas ‘help’ may indicate that a person with disabilities is helpless, ‘support’ and ‘assistance’ are more empowering and appropriate terms to use.

Impairment vs disability – impairment refers to ‘any loss or abnormality of psychological, physiological or anatomical structure or function’ (World Health Organization), while disability ‘results from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinders their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.’

Reasonable accommodation – refers to necessary and appropriate modifications to ensure that persons with disabilities can enjoy all human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Sign language and international sign – each country has its own sign language and ‘International Sign’ is a form of sign based on a series of agreed-upon signs that deaf people across the globe use when they hold international events.

Visual impairment vs blindness – the former encompasses a wide range of vision loss situations of which blindness is just one.

PWD – abbreviation of ‘persons with disabilities,’ this term is not always considered politically correct.

How to Talk To And Treat People With Disabilities

Speaking to and interacting with a person with a disability is very similar to talking about a person with a disability. The obvious difference is the presence of and understanding by a person with a disability. Addressing them needs to be focused on the individual and their personhood and any reference to their disability should only be in reference to their access needs. When not relevant to the discussion, there is no place to bring up or use disability language. Likewise, a person with a disability should not be treated as a victim. 

While all of this information may be daunting, particularly if it’s new to you, the most important thing to focus on is the person, rather than the disability. Don’t worry so much about saying the wrong thing that you end up not saying anything. Try to be relaxed and be willing to both listen and communicate respectfully.

What To Do and What Not To Do?

There are useful strategies when trying to use inclusive language for disabilities that will help guide you so you do and say the right things, while avoiding common pitfalls. The most important of these is to put the individual first and focus on their personhood. Learning the appropriate terminology is also a helpful prerequisite and will allow you to respectfully describe or discuss the topics at hand. It’s probably not a good idea to use any vocabulary that you’re not familiar with, with the exception of asking about its proper usage. Similarly, you’ll want to avoid using made-up terms that may seem harmless, but can be perceived as disrespectful or derogatory. A person with a disability should not be referred to as different, as suffering from a disability, or as victims. The conversation is better focused on a person’s abilities, and aids to improve access, rather than on limitations, challenges, and obstacles. 

The Australian Network on Disability has put together a number of training resources for workplace behaviour and discussions regarding disability and improved access. Likewise, the resources available to you when you partner with Maple Community Services can aid in having these discussions and ensuring that inclusive language for disabilities is emphasised and respected in every way possible. 

Disability Etiquette

If you don’t interact with persons with disabilities regularly, then you may be unsure of the etiquette to follow. The most important thing to remember is to always treat people with disabilities as you would anyone else and acknowledge their uniqueness in the same way. Don’t assume they need help; ask them. And if they say no, don’t follow up with “are you sure?” or talk down to them, literally or figuratively. Always speak directly to them, not just to their companion or interpreter. 

If you are unsure of how you should interact with a person with a disability, simply ask him or her what is the right way. As humans, our instinct may be to stereotype as this is a form of dealing with situations we are unfamiliar with. The best thing to do is to face the situation with an open mind and an open heart; don’t judge them by their disability, listen carefully, and treat them with the respect they deserve.