Language is an incredibly powerful tool, and can be used to create a sense of empowerment, pride, identity and purpose. Contrary to the old adage "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me," improper use can have a devastating impact, even with the best intentions.
It can be difficult to keep up with what is the acceptable terminology in relation to disability, so we’ve compiled a brief refresher for you.
Focus on the person, not the impairment
In Australia, best practice language is to use “person with disability” or “people with disability”.
Person-first language is the most widely accepted terminology in Australia. Examples of person-first language include: “person with disability”, “person who is deaf”, or “people who have low vision”. Put the person first, and the impairment second (when it’s relevant). Other terms that are growing in popularity and acceptance are “person living with disability”, and “person with lived experience of disability”. These terms are inclusive of people who may have experienced disability in the past, but don’t any longer, and also people who are carers.
We also prefer to say “person without disability”, and do not recommend the terms “non-disabled” or “able-bodied”.
Don’t use language that implies a person with disability is inspirational simply because they experience disability
People with disability are just living their lives, they are no more super-human than anyone else. Implying that a person with disability is courageous or special just for getting through the day is patronising and offensive.
Conversely, don’t make out that people with disability are victims or objects of pity
Just because a person experiences disability, it does not make them weak, a victim or someone to be pitied. Examples of language that can imply people should be pitied include “suffering from…”, “struck down by…”, and “afflicted by/with…”. We try to remove the emotion from the language, for example, “Paul experiences depression”, “Ravi developed Multiple Sclerosis”, or “Katya has epilepsy”.
People are not ‘bound’ by their wheelchairs
The term wheelchair-bound is one that is commonly used in mainstream media, and it is one that really irritates (and often offends) many people with disability, and anyone with any knowledge of the Social Model of disability. A person who uses a wheelchair is not bound by the chair; they are enabled and liberated by it, it can become an extension of their body. “Confined to a wheelchair” is equally as negative. AND uses “wheelchair user” or “person who uses a wheelchair”, instead.
‘Disclosure’ can imply secrets and lies
At AND we are moving away from the traditional terminology of ‘disclosure of disability’ (in a workplace setting), as it can make it seem like the person is divulging a secret. We avoid “declaration of disability” for similar reasons. We also tend to steer clear of the increasingly popular phrase “identify as a person with disability”, as this brings with it a whole range of other issues around identity and belonging. Someone may have impairment, but still not identify as a person with disability. We now tend to use the simple phrase “choose to share information about their disability/impairment”, when talking about a person’s choice to let their employer or colleagues know about their disability or specific requirements. You can read more about sharing disability information in our Sharing and Monitoring Disability Information in your Workforce Guide.
Avoid euphemisms and made up words
“Differently abled”, “people of all abilities”, “disAbility”, “diffAbled”, “special needs” and the like, are all euphemistic and can be considered patronising. While the intention is usually good, these phrases tend to fall into the trap of making people with disability out to be special or inspirational, just for living with disability (see above point).
Change the focus from disability, to accessibility
In recent years, AND members have increasingly referred to Accessibility Action Plans or Access and Inclusion Plans, rather than Disability Action Plans. This makes the focus much more inclusive, and incorporates the requirements of a diverse range of people who may have access needs, including older people, parents and carers of young children, and travellers.
Similarly, car parks, lifts and bathrooms are now appropriately described as accessible, rather than disabled or handicapped.
Relax, and don’t get caught up in semantics
While the above information may seem daunting if it’s new to you, the most important thing you can remember is to simply focus on the person, rather than the disability. Don’t be so afraid of saying the wrong thing that you don’t say anything at all. Relax, be willing to communicate, and listen.