Last reviewed: 6 January 2023
This resource comes from our Inclusive Communication Toolkit, available to Business Disability Forum Members and Partners.
The words that we use to talk about disability are important. Our choice of words can make someone feel engaged and included or ignored and excluded.
Unfortunately, many unhelpful and negative stereotypes continue to exist around disability. Using words or phrases without thinking about their meaning can reinforce these stereotypes.
About this resource
This resource is for:
- Anyone who wants to find out how to talk about disability in an inclusive way.
- Those working in communication roles or working with internal or external communication teams and agencies.
- Those working in HR or management roles.
- Those working in customer facing roles.
In this resource, you will find general tips about out how to talk about disability
as well as language to use and to avoid. Whilst most of the advice included here is widely accepted, the debate around language and disability is ongoing as language continues to evolve.
Regularly reviewing the language your organisation uses is important and makes sense. Involve your disability networks and customer panels in the process. It is also important to think about inclusive language when reviewing your brand guidelines, house style guides , and communication policies more widely.
Ask don’t assume
The language we use to describe ourselves is a very personal thing. Disability is just one aspect of who a person is. Always ask the person the language they prefer. They may not wish you to mention their disability at all or they may prefer you use or avoid certain words. It is always best to check.
But, don’t let the thought of using the wrong words put you off. Most disabled people won’t mind if you get it wrong if your intention was right. Context is often as important as the words themselves.
Using inclusive language: Top tips
Ask someone the language they would like you to use. If you are unsure, then ask. Don’t make assumptions.
Focus on removing barriers. Having a disability is just one aspect of a who a person is. Try not to define someone by their disability. Often, it is not necessary or appropriate to mention a person’s disability. Ask what you can do to make things easier for that person rather than about their disability.
Use language that everyone can identify with. A person may be defined as disabled under the law but may not regard themselves as having a disability or ever use the term ‘disabled’ to describe themselves. As an example, people who use British Sign Language, and who identify as part of the deaf community, may prefer to be referred to as ‘Deaf’ with a capital ‘D’. Someone who has autism or dyslexia may prefer ‘neurodiverse’ or ‘autistic’ or ‘dyslexic’.
Avoid emotive language. This includes terms such as ‘victim’ and ‘sufferer’, unless the person themselves chooses to use them. It also includes terms which disempower disabled people, such as “vulnerable”, “frail” and “dependent”.
Avoid terms which are patronising. Don’t imply that someone is ‘inspiring’, ‘brave’ or a ‘superhero’ just because they have a disability.
Use neutral language. For example, use terms such as ‘condition’ instead of terms such as ‘problem’ or ‘issue’, which some people find negative.
Avoid collective nouns. Terms such as ‘the disabled’ or ‘the blind’ suggest that people are part of a uniform group, rather than individuals with their own preferences and identity.
In general, avoid medical terms. Terms such as ‘diagnosis of’ or ‘illness’, may cause offence, although some people choose to use them about themselves. Of course, these terms may be the most appropriate and necessary if you are writing in a medical context. But it is still good to be aware of how they can be viewed by disabled people and people with long term conditions.
Avoid phrases with a negative connotation. Most everyday phrases such as ‘see you later’ or ‘look forward to hearing from you’ are acceptable to someone who is blind or D/deaf. The exception is if the phrase has a negative connotation, such as ‘to turn a blind eye’ or ‘it fell on deaf ears’.
Do not ask people to ‘declare or disclose’ their disability. Some people are ok with this but many others aren’t. It is safer to use plainer language, such as “tell us if you have a disability or condition” or simply ask if people need an adjustment. It is good practice to ask everyone if you can do anything differently to make things easier for them. Remember everyone has preferences regardless of whether or not they have a disability. Business Disability Forum discusses this topic further in an article on inclusive language published by Includr.
Consider your audience. Generally, if writing for a UK audience, then ‘disabled people’ is often preferred over ‘people with disabilities’. ‘Disabled people’ recognises that people are ‘disabled’ by society’s response to them or by their long-term condition. This is called identify first language. If communicating with a global audience, then ‘people with disabilities’ is more widely used. This is called people first language and emphasises the person over their disability.
Take into account cultural meaning. The words and phrases mentioned in this resource relate to the use of English in the UK. Different words will be viewed as acceptable and unacceptable in other languages and cultures. It is important to take this into consideration when translating any information into another language. You can find out more about communicating with global audiences in our Global Guide, ‘Lost in translation? A global guide to the language of disability‘.
Words to use and words to avoid
Before mentioning a person’s disability, always consider whether it is necessary or appropriate to do so.
If you do need to mention a particular disability or disabilities, make sure the language you use is accurate and doesn’t cause people to feel excluded.
Please note that some of the words used in the following ‘Avoid’ sections may cause offence. We have included them to help increase understanding. We do not endorse their wider use.
- Use: a person with a mental health condition
- Avoid: mental, schizo, psycho, mad
- Use: disabled person, person with a disability, person with a long-term condition
- Avoid: cripple, invalid, or describing disabled people generally as ‘unwell’
- Use: someone who has….
- Avoid: victim of or sufferer
- Use: a person with dwarfism, or someone of short stature. Note that some people prefer ‘dwarf’
- Avoid: midget
- Use: seizures
- Avoid: fits or spells
- Use: a person with a learning disability, or someone with a learning disability
- Avoid: mentally handicapped, retarded, slow
- Use: brain injury
- Avoid: brain damaged
- Use: a wheelchair user
- Avoid: wheelchair bound, confined to a wheelchair
- Use: a person with a disfigurement or visible difference
- Avoid: deformed
- Use: blind people, people who are blind, deaf people, Deaf people, people who are deaf, disabled people, people with disabilities
- Avoid: the blind, the deaf or the disabled.
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