Using Disability-Inclusive Language
Disability language refers to the words we use to describe or refer to disabled people. You’re probably aware that some words once considered as acceptable disability language are now considered unacceptable—even disrespectful and hurtful.
It’s important to keep yourself up-to-date on disability language and to maintain an attitude of listening and learning so that your communication—whether to colleagues, employees, customers, or clients— is inclusive and respectful. This practice isn’t just good for business, it’s also part of being a good human.
And you’re not alone! ProWritingAid will help you out by flagging inappropriate terms in your work and, in some cases, suggesting replacements.
Person-First and Identity-First
When it comes to describing people with disabilities, person-first and identity-first language represent the two main schools of thought.
Always remember that the disability community is diverse. Not every person in the community or within subgroups (for example, the Deaf community, those on the Autism spectrum) shares the same feelings about which approach is appropriate, so whenever possible, ask your audience or subject for preferences.
In person-first language, the person comes before the diagnosis. Identity-First Language places the disability first, as an identity category.
|A person with Autism||Autistic Person
|A person who is blind||Blind person
|A child with epilepsy||Epileptic child|
The preference for person-first language is held by those who want to be seen as a person first and foremost. It’s also generally appropriate to use this style for describing temporary situations or conditions. For example, “a person with Autisim."
While some in the disabilities community may prefer this style, others do not. Some see person-first language as erasing a core element of their identity or relegating it to something that “happened” to them rather than as an important part of their identity and experiences.
This preference seems to be especially true for the Deaf community (though again, not necessarily everyone in that community). Find more information here: The National Association of the Deaf.
For more information on person-first and identity-first language, check out this article from the Association of Healthcare Journalists.
Mind Your Tone
Keep sentimentality, attempts at empowerment, and cheerleading out of the descriptions and terminology you use when writing about disabilities. Though well-intended, the result usually comes across as condescending. For example, “differently-abled,” “exceptional,” “has overcome,” and “special needs” are terms perceived as condescending.
Additionally, avoid terms of “affliction.” For example, don’t say “a person suffering from...” or “she’s a victim of…” or “they struggle with…”
Instead, use factual and descriptive tones and terminology. This may mean identifying the specific disability (for example, cerebral palsy, blindness), or using the umbrella term of disability or disabled.
- He has cerebral palsy.
- She is a wheelchair user.
- They are both disabled.
- He is autistic with fluent verbal skills.
Terms: Take the Time to Investigate
Disability language will continue to evolve, so take the time to do some research before you send out your communication.
Other examples of terms (still somewhat widely used) to avoid:
|Visually impaired||Blind (if the person has no sight): legally or partially blind or partially sighted (if the person has some sight)|
|High or (Low) functioning autism||Provide descriptions: Autistic without intellectual disabilities.
For an explanation, see Spectrum News.
|Handicap/Handicapped||Provide descriptions: Autistic without intellectual disabilities.|
|Asperger’s Sydrome and Pervasive Development Disorder Not Otherwise Specificed
These diagnoses have been removed from the DSM-V
|Austism Spectrum Disorder
On the Autism spectrum
|Brain damage||Brain Injury|
For more examples, check the Stanford Disability Language Guide.
Remember, the disability community is diverse. Whenever possible, tailor your terminology to the preferences of those who are the subjects of or audience for your communication.
Stay updated. Be aware of the changes that will likely continue to occur within disability language.
Listen to the experts. “Experts” doesn’t have to refer people with degrees, though it can, but to disabled people themselves since they know how they want to be addressed or described. Use sources that include voices of disabled people as you continue to research and learn.
Make sure your description of/reference to a disability is relevant to whatever communication you are sending.