Inclusive language and why it matters
Inclusive language is terminology that doesn’t discriminate against or stereotype people or groups. It’s particularly pertinent for people or groups who have historically been excluded or marginalized.
Using inclusive language shows consideration, awareness, and respect toward individuals and groups through use of positive, accurate, and impartial terms. Being intentional means recognizing people for who they are, and creating a sense of belonging and safety for all.
Fear of getting it wrong
It’s very common to hear “but I might say the wrong thing”. First of all, that means you’re trying, which is always appreciated. Secondly, yes, there may be times when we say the wrong thing. It can seem awkward and uncomfortable, but asking someone what their preferences are is the most respectful thing you can do. In the same way you may ask someone their pronoun preferences, or their preferred name, you can also ask their preferred terms for talking about their disability.
However, there’s no need to refer to a person’s disability unless it is relevant.
If you do need to mention it, here are some appropriate and inclusive ways to do so.
Most people with disabilities prefer “person-first” terminology such as “person who is blind” or “people with disabilities”. The disability does not define who they are; it is only a part of their identity. This also helps avoid stereotyping and labels. Just because someone has a disability, doesn’t mean they’re the same as another person with that disability.
Some people, however, prefer to refer to themselves using disability-first language. It’s a way of reclaiming the terminology used to oppress them, and taking back ownership of the language.
Finally, communicate directly with people rather than through their companion or interpreter. It’s ok if you need help understanding their responses, but always address the person you’re speaking with directly during your part of the conversation.
Labels and stereotypes
Disability does not equal “illness” or “problem”. It’s also not something to “overcome”. People with disabilities may have a different lived experience of the world but they are not victims of their disability. They may be victims of, or suffer from, society’s barriers around their disability, but it isn’t the disability itself that needs to change. It’s us.
It’s also good practice to avoid referring to groups of people by their condition or disability such as “the blind” or “the deaf”. If you’re referencing a specific community where it is relevant that they share the same characteristics, you should check to make sure it’s appropriate and approved.
Euphemisms and condescending language
Avoid euphemisms such as “differently abled,” “physically challenged,” “mentally different” or “handicapable.” While these may seem polite, it is actually ableist language that does more harm than good.
Proper language use e.g. “See you tomorrow” is ok for a blind person. But “blind as a bat” is not acceptable, as it is condescending to the disability. Also, appropriating disability terminology is not acceptable such as using “lame” to mean boring or uncool.
- Use “disabled,” “disability” or “accessible” rather than “handicapped.”
- Use “non-disabled”, or “able-bodied“ rather than “normal” or “functioning”.
- Use “requires a wheelchair” or “uses an assistive device”, (e.g., crutches, walker, cane) rather than “needs help with” or “relies on”.
- Use “congenital disability” or “birth injury” rather than “defect” or “abnormality”.
- Use “person with a physical disability”, or “person who is/has […]” rather than “disabled person” or “epilepsy sufferer”.
Ultimately, inclusive language is about recognizing appropriate terms for people with disabilities in order to show respect, acceptance, and solidarity.
When we are intentional with our language choices, we create a welcoming and safe space for everyone. And isn’t that what inclusion is all about?