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A Quick Style Guide for Writing Disability-Focused Content

Nov 30, 2021

The first rule of writing is to know your audience — and to adapt your content to communicate with them effectively. Many writers hesitate when addressing readers with disabilities because they’re concerned that they’ll use outdated terminology. 

These concerns are a positive sign that you’re taking a mindful approach. On this blog, we write content that addresses the full spectrum of disabilities. We follow a consistent style guide to try to discuss conditions mindfully, and while we’re not perfect, we’ve established some practices to help our writers address disability-related topics more effectively.

Below, we’ll introduce some tips for writing disability-focused content. For more guidance, read our article: Writing Clearer Content That Benefits Accessibility Expands Your Audience.

Understand the difference between person-first and identity-first language

Person-first language (also referred to as people-first language or PFL) focuses on the subject of the sentence, while identity-first language (or IFL) places the focus on the subject’s disability. Here’s an example of person-first language:

We want to create better content for people with disabilities.

Here’s an example of identity-first language:

We want to create better content for disabled people.

The United States Office of Disability Rights recommends using PFL for most discussions of disabilities and conditions. By describing the individual before describing their disability, PFL may be seen as more respectful, and many disability advocates prefer PFL for that reason.

However, there is no absolute consensus regarding whether PFL or IFL is more considerate, appropriate, or accurate — some people with disabilities consider their conditions to be important, positive parts of their identities. These advocates prefer identity-first descriptions. 

Make considerate choices when choosing between IFL and PFL. 

On our website, we typically use person-first language, but we may choose identity-first language to describe certain groups that have expressed that preference. For example, the Deaf community generally prefers identity-first language, and some autism self-advocates prefer IFL. 

Most disability style guides use person-first language by default, but if you’re writing about a specific disability, do some quick research to find out how the group self-identifies. Be consistent, especially if you’re writing several articles about disabilities. 

Avoid negative or biased terminology when discussing disabilities

Think about your word choice when writing and try to avoid any descriptions that portray people as less capable than others. Even the term “disabilities" can be controversial — some people prefer the term “conditions,” which may carry a less negative connotation. 

On this blog, we use the terminology found in documents like the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), and we regularly use the phrase “people with disabilities.” However, we’re aware that a person’s condition doesn’t determine their lifestyle, habits, or capabilities, and we try to use language that reflects that perspective. We try to avoid terminology that makes broad assumptions about people’s experiences — that mindset can be helpful when writing.

Use caution when describing how conditions affect people.

Review your word choice carefully, but don’t obsess over finding the “right" terminology — focus on creating respectful content that portrays people accurately. Here are some examples of sentences that could be offensive to some readers: 

    • “People with vision disabilities rely on screen readers.”
    • “People who use wheelchairs have challenges that able-bodied people don’t encounter.”
    • “Blind people love reading as much as normal people.
    • “Autism is a common mental impairment.”

These sentences are offensive because they’re inaccurate. After all, you wouldn’t say that users “rely” on keyboards, touchscreens, or web browsers; they simply use those tools to accomplish tasks. A person who uses a wheelchair may be extremely healthy and able-bodied, so there’s no reason to draw a distinction — and blind people are certainly “normal people,” so the phrasing gets in the way of the author’s message.

Review your word choice and look for opportunities to improve your accuracy. For more information on inappropriate terms, the National Center on Disability and Journalism provides an excellent guide with dozens of examples.

Avoid pictorial language and generalities.

Try not to use terms that force readers to create a mental image of the subject. This type of language often gives the impression that the person’s condition restricts them from performing certain activities.

For example:

“Make sure your restaurant is accessible for people who are bound to a wheelchair.

While this sentence uses person-first language, it implies that wheelchairs restrict their users. Many people who use wheelchairs don’t feel “bound" to their wheelchairs, and terms like “wheelchair-bound" can diminish their experience.

Likewise, don’t assume that every person adapts to their disability in the same way. As we’ve noted in other articles, many people with vision disabilities use screen readers — but some people use screen magnifiers and other assistive technologies. Some people browse the internet without assistive tech. Don’t make assumptions.

Avoid metaphors and idioms that minimizes disabilities

Some metaphors, idioms, and popular phrases may be interpreted as ableist (discriminatory towards people with disabilities). Examples include:

    • “I think that t-shirt is lame.”
    • “He’s acting crazy.” 
    • “It’s another case of the blind leading the blind.”
    • “It’s time for us to stand up to the problem.”

In certain contexts, some phrases may not be offensive, but you’ll need to carefully consider your word choice when using metaphorical language. 

Occasionally, you may accidentally use an outdated phrase while writing — as long as you’re making a good-faith effort to write inclusively, you’re taking the right approach. Remember, you can always update your content if you’ve made a mistake.

Research euphemisms before using them

Euphemisms are neutral words used in place of offensive expressions. However, they’re not always appropriate when discussing disabilities. 

Writers sometimes assume that people with disabilities use euphemisms like “handi-capable," “handicapped,” “differently abled,” “special,” or “physically challenged.” These terms are outdated — and terms like “handi-capable" were never widely used by people with disabilities. 

When discussing individuals with disabilities, ask for their preferences

No two people are the same, and your subject may have strong preferences for certain terminology. If you’re discussing an individual’s experience, ask for their preferences — and respect those preferences.

Again, don’t make assumptions. A person might use a term like “wheelchair user" when discussing their condition with you, but they may ask the writer to use a different term when referring to them in third-person. It’s okay to ask sensitive questions. 

If you’re writing about a person with disabilities, only mention the disability if it’s directly relevant to the content. For example, if you’re interviewing a CEO about their business, you won’t need to mention that they’re Deaf — unless their business markets products or services to the Deaf community.

Don’t be afraid to write about disabilities

Many writers worry that they’ll offend their audiences when discussing specific conditions. This isn’t unreasonable; unfortunately, if you’re writing for a large audience, you might accidentally offend some people. However, writing about disabilities can be enormously beneficial, and every writer makes occasional mistakes. 

In other words, do your best. Perform quick research when writing about subjects outside of your comfort zone. Pay attention to how disability advocates use language, and if you make a mistake, correct yourself and move forward. 

Finally, make sure you’re publishing your content on an accessible platform. In previous articles, we’ve discussed best practices for social media, and our Website Accessibility Audits offer guidance for maintaining an accessible website. Remember, by discussing conditions authentically, you can start important conversations — and your readers will appreciate the effort.

Use our free Website Accessibility Checker to scan your site for ADA and WCAG compliance.

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