Implementing Disability Inclusive Language

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. 

Why disability-inclusive language matters

Historically, language has left many people out. 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.

Stereotyping of people with disability usually paints people with a disability as victims or suffering. 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.

Instead of assuming your audience is all the same, inclusive language allows you actively embrace diversity and the intersection of identities, and to avoid assumptions that could harm relationships before they even start.

Inclusive language shows sensitivity, respect and open-mindedness toward individuals and groups through positive, accurate, equitable representation.

What is inclusive language?

Inclusive language seeks to treat all people with respect, dignity, and impartiality. It is constructed to bring everyone into the group and exclude no one.

If we stereotype someone, we assume a range of things about them based on one or two of their personal characteristics – like their appearance, intelligence, personality, disability or their gender. Using appropriate, inclusive language sees us all as individual people and not just products of stereotypes.

How employees and employers can encourage inclusive language in the workplace

We all have a responsibility to use inclusive language as part of creating positive workplace cultures. Inclusive language is also about treating all people equitably and with the sensitivity and respect they’re entitled to.

Inclusivity tips

  • Avoid references to a person’s gender except where it is pertinent to the discussion – this usually involves using gender neutral terms like ‘humanity’ or ‘people’ instead of ‘mankind’, ‘workforce’ or ‘labour’ instead of ‘manpower’ and ‘the chair’ or ‘the chairperson’ instead of ‘the chairman’
  • Use gender neutral pronouns – ‘they’ is considered acceptable and by changing a sentence to plural it often resolves the clumsy issue of ‘he/she’ or ‘him/her’ in written communication
  • 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 undue emphasis on racial/ethnic ‘differences’, e.g. only refer to someone’s racial background if it’s relevant
  • Avoid stereotyping, e.g. making positive or negative generalisations about members of a particular racial/ethnic or national group in ways that detract from people’s fundamental humanity and individuality
  • Avoid using derogatory labelling, offensive humour and ethnic and racial slurs, e.g. terms whose main function is to set aside some groups from an implied mainstream by suggesting a ‘them and us’ mentality
  • Use terms that are inclusive such as ‘first name’ and ‘family name’, rather than ‘Christian name’ and ‘surname’
  • Avoid referring to people by their migration status, such as ‘former refugee’, ‘humanitarian entrant’ or ‘new arrival’, etc. Some people prefer not to be identified through origin or descent at all.
  • Avoid using acronyms to describe a person’s background, like NESB (non-English speaking) or ATSI (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander). The term EAL (English as an additional language) is considered to be more inclusive.
  • Don’t say ‘honey/darling/dear’, instead use the employee’s name; don’t say ‘spokesman’, instead use‘spokesperson’.

People, says Flinders University, regardless of their social and cultural backgrounds, are first and foremost individuals. “Reference to an individual’s attributes is therefore only appropriate if it is relevant to the context.” People with disability, for example, are not a homogenous group. You can’t go wrong with putting the person first.

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