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.

Never underestimate the power of the spoken word. The language we use has an impact on the social narrative around us. Changing our language to be more inclusive can change the perception of those living with disabilities and how they are treated by the general public. What’s more, we can use it to adjust the systemic structures in society.

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.

Why Do We Use Inclusive Language for Disabilities?

People living with disabilities are often referred to in ways that are disempowering, discriminatory, degrading or offensive. If we use negative words such as ‘victim’ or ‘sufferer’ we are perpetuating stereotypes that indicate people living with disabilities are living a less meaningful existence, are not happy and should be viewed with pity.

4.4 million Australians fall into this category. These people in society who may require support want to tell their own stories without family members, service providers or academics speaking on their behalf. They want to rewrite the narrative that has become mainstream, they want to be accepted and respected for the hurdles they have faced and overcome.

These stereotypes are harmful and untrue. People living with disabilities are people first, with their own experiences that make them human. They are people with families, who work, participate in our communities and contribute to our society. Many are proud of their disability and want their identity to be recognised and even celebrated as much as anyone else deserves.

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 style manual is provided by the Australian Government which can serve as a general guide for what terms not to use, as well as appropriate alternatives. We have outlined these and more below. While this list is not comprehensive or authoritative, it provides an excellent starting point to understand how these discussions can be directed.

Avoid Use
(the) handicapped, (the) disabled disabled (people), people with disability
afflicted by, suffers from, victim of [person’s name] has [name of condition or impairment]
confined to a wheelchair, wheelchair-bound person who uses a wheelchair or mobility device
mentally handicapped, mentally defective, retarded, subnormal with a learning disability (singular) with learning disabilities (plural), person with cognitive disability, person with intellectual disability, person with developmental disability
cripple, invalid person with physical disability, person living with disability
spastic person with cerebral palsy
able-bodied, abled, healthy, normal, of sound body, well non-disabled person, person without disability
mental patient, insane, mad person with a mental health condition
deaf and dumb; deaf mute person who is deaf or hard of hearing, user of Auslan (Australian Sign Language), person with a hearing impairment
the blind people with visual impairments; blind people; blind and partially sighted people
an epileptic, diabetic, depressive, and so on person with epilepsy, diabetes, depression or someone who has epilepsy, diabetes, depression
dwarf; midget someone with restricted growth or short stature
fits, spells, attacks seizures
handicapped parking accessible parking
incapacitated person with reduced mobility
normal, of sound mind, autistic [name of person] is neurotypical

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 labelling 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. 

Remember that you can cause offence even if you mean well. Don’t call them inspirational due to their disability or speak about them as if they are heroes or victims as this could be seen as condescending.

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. 

Social Model vs. Medical Model

Medical model

For generations the view of disability has been classed under what is now called a medical model. Under this model disabilities are considered a health condition for health professionals to treat, fix or cure.

Social model

As we develop and become more inclusive as a society, we realise that many people with disabilities prefer the social model approach. This model shifts the problem from individual impairments to the social environment that we operate in. Using this approach we focus on and understand how people with disabilities interact with their environment and others in society. It aims to break down physical, digital, communicative and emotional barriers that these people face and create solutions to be more inclusive rather than alienate them or “fix” an impairment.

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.