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Have you ever wondered if you were using the most appropriate language when talking about disability? Have you tried to be respectful but end up getting it all wrong? That’s why we thought it would be helpful to offer some suggestions for you to practice and improve your disability inclusive language.

The wheelchair as a disability icon doesn’t help people understand that ‘disability’ is an umbrella term. Not all disabilities are visible. Disabilities can be intellectual, sensory, mental, attitudinal and physical. That is precisely the importance of disability pride month: to raise awareness of disabilities and pride for people with disabilities.

This article will focus on guiding you to use disability inclusive language. You will also find a pdf of our short guide to download or print as part of our series on inclusive writing (read our article about using gender-neutral pronouns). 

writing about disability; disability inclusive language

How can I write respectfully about disabilities?

It is important to use neutral and objective language when referring to a person with a disability. It is important to focus on the individual’s ability instead of their limitations. It is also crucial to use active language and not passive language. Remember, the person comes first, the disability second. As a starting point, the best you can do is not to assume a disability and not define a person by it. Not everyone will be open about their disabilities. There is still a lot of stigma surrounding some disabilities, like mental health. That is why it is important to consider how people identify themselves.

Sometimes people worry so much about what to say that they end up being carefully overly aware and awkward about what they say and how they say it. What a disabled person expects from you is to be treated with respect just like everyone else you know. Below we share a list of widespread common mistakes.

  • Disabled is a description; it is not a group of people.
  • Disability is part of someone; it does not define who they are.
  • Avoid using ‘the disabled’. Use ‘disabled people’ or ‘people with disabilities’.
  • ‘Disabled’ is not a synonym for ‘patient’.
  • Not all people with disabilities identify themselves as disabled. Deaf people, for example, might identify themselves as part of the Deaf Community.
  • Avoid negative terms like ‘suffer from’, ‘victim of’, ‘afflicted with’, and ‘stricken with’.
  • Wheelchair users are not ‘confined to a wheelchair’; instead, they use a wheelchair as a mobility aid.
  • When choosing the best term to use, focus on abilities, not limitations.
  • Use your voice normally, don’t patronise people.
  • Always speak directly to a person with a disability, not their carer or family member.
  • Use care worker, personal assistant, enabler which has a positive connotation, instead of using ‘carer supporting someone’, which has a passive denotation to the person who uses the service.

Here is our Short Guide on Disability Inclusive Language for you to print or download:

disability language short-guide; how to write about disability

Click on the image to download and save the pdf file.

If you are part of a new startup, a small company or really interested in getting diversity and inclusivity right for your business, get in touch with The Writing Box team! We are here to help you start your D&I content journey! = )

Sources and Resources:

Disability Style Guide from the National Centre on Disability and Journalism

Writing about disability and difference

Inclusive language: words to use and avoid when writing about disability

7 Tips for Writing About Disability

Guidelines for Writing About People With Disabilities

Disability Words and Language