When Discussing Disabilities, Use Appropriate Language

August 10, 2021

As your organization begins adopting an accessible mindset, you may want to open up discussions about diversity and inclusiveness. That might mean holding conversations with employees, writing press releases about accessibility improvements, or creating content specifically for people living with disabilities.

These efforts can be enormously helpful, but they can also highlight disabilities in non-constructive ways. When discussing disabilities, make an effort to use audience-appropriate language, especially when identifying specific people or groups. Also, a positive mindset can help you approach the subject while staying respectful.

The disabilities community isn’t a monolith, and individuals have different preferences.

Creators should recognize that there’s no “right" way to talk about disabilities, but certain terms are widely regarded as inappropriate. By simply paying attention to your word choice, you can avoid most serious issues.

Some of the most common mistakes to avoid:

  • Using terms like “normal" or “healthy” when discussing people who aren’t living with permanent disabilities
  • Highlighting a person’s disability or condition without their consent
  • Referring to assistive technologies such as screen readers as something that people “rely on" or “need"
  • Making assumptions about how a disability affects a person’s behavior
  • Using outdated terminology

When writing for a general audience, the National Center on Disability and Journalism’s Disability Language Style Guide is an excellent resource for content creators. This guide addresses specific terms and provides helpful recommendations for usage. However, no style guide can provide perfect guidance; people have different (and equally valid) relationships with their challenges and disabilities.

For example, person-first language (PFL) is usually appropriate when identifying subjects. PFL puts the person before the disability or condition. “People with visual impairments" is often interpreted as less offensive than “visually impaired people,” since the person-first language indicates that the subject isn’t defined by their disability.

However, some disability communities disagree with that approach. For instance, according to the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), many Autistic self-advocates prefer identity-first terms like “Autistic,” “Autistic person,” or “Autistic individual.” As ASAN explains, person-first terminology suggests that a person can be separated from their autism, but autism is a part of the person, and they may not want to be separated from that part of their identity.

For businesses, non-profits, and other organizations, the best approach is to search for authoritative resources to learn how to address specific conditions. Be consistent, but listen to your audience. On this blog, we use person-first language by default, but we use identity-first language when discussing individuals or groups that prefer that approach.

Always ask about preferences when holding private discussions.

Here’s an easy rule to keep in mind: If you’re discussing an individual or organization, use their preferred terminology. Some people prefer identity-first language, while others prefer person-first language — and others might use alternative terms. If you’re discussing an individual’s disabilities, it’s okay to ask them for their preferences.

However, make sure you’re discussing disabilities for a reason: Highlighting an individual’s condition can be offensive if it’s irrelevant to the subject. For example, if you’re publishing a press release about your site’s accessibility improvements, mentioning an employee’s disability could be offensive (unless that employee worked directly on the website, and their disabilities played a key role in their approach).

Some people won’t mind discussing their conditions with a general audience, but be sure to ask before publishing. If you’re writing about an employee, make sure they don’t feel pressured to participate if they’re uncomfortable.

Don’t be afraid of discussing disabilities when the subject is relevant.

Many organizations don’t publish content about accessibility because they’re concerned about how their audiences will interpret their language. That’s not a great reason to avoid the subject: Talking about disabilities can help to normalize them, and while these conversations take effort, they’re extremely valuable.

Remember, 25 percent of adults living in the United States have one or more disabilities — if your site reaches a large audience, you may accidentally offend people by using certain language, even if you’re using terms in good faith. That doesn’t mean that it’s a bad idea to discuss disabilities or celebrate your audience’s diversity. Be consistent, think carefully about your audience, and try your best to present information in a thoughtful, positive way.

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