Although language has the power to be meaningful and positive, language also has the potential to be negative. It has traditionally highlighted disability and led to terms like ‘handicapped’, ‘the blind’ and ‘the disabled’. This trend has tended to emphasise the disability rather than the person, which can lead to derogatory labelling, depersonalisation, or impersonal, collective references.

Instead of assuming your audience is all the same, inclusive language allows you to actively embrace diversity and the intersection of identities, and to avoid assumptions that could harm relationships before they even start. Inclusive language seeks to treat all people with respect and dignity, and is constructed to welcome all and exclude no one. Inclusive language shows sensitivity, respect and open-mindedness toward individuals and groups through positive, accurate, equitable representation.

Using the right terminology when referring to people with disability is key to creating an inclusive society, but knowing what you should and shouldn’t say can be unclear.

Here are few of the ways to make your language more disability inclusive, which you can implement into your workplace, community, and everyday life.

  • The current correct term is to use the neutral term ‘people with disability’ – putting the person first. For example, the phrases ‘person with disability’ or ‘musician with vision impairment’ or ‘child with Autism’ (or ‘on the spectrum’) and ‘person with epilepsy’ are considered more inclusive and sensitive. Avoid unnecessary or gratuitous reference to the disability if it’s not relevant to the circumstances.

  • The correct terminology is to say someone is living with, experiences, developed or has a disabiity. Using language such as ‘suffering from’ implies they are a victim.

  • Refrain from using language that implies someone with disability is courageous or inspirational because they are living with disability. They are no different to everyone else living their lives, and implying that they are ‘heroes’ can be patronising. This includes using terms such as ‘differently abled’ and ‘disAbled’. 
  • Avoid using the term ‘special’ when referring to people with disability – they don’t have ‘special needs’, they are not ‘special’, they don’t require ‘special handling’

  • Toilets are not ‘disabled’ – they are better referred to as ‘universal access toilets’

  • Avoid using derogatory labelling, offensive humour and ethnic and slurs, e.g. terms whose main function is to set aside some groups from an implied mainstream by suggesting a ‘them and us’ mentality

Using the right terminology creates a positive environment for all members of the community, and is a great way to ensure people with disability are being treated with respect and dignity.