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Describing Disability

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14 August 2015

Whilst most people do not wish to be described by disability, in our line of work it is sometimes necessary and within the world of access consultancy, many clients struggle when describing or writing about people with various disabilities.

Whilst most people do not wish to be described by disability, in our line of work it is sometimes necessary and within the world of access consultancy, many clients struggle when describing or writing about people with various disabilities. Different people are comfortable with different terminology, but from research and experience, the following points will help ensure language is used in an inclusive way:

  • ‘Disabled’ is a description, not a group of people, never use ‘the disabled’ as a collective noun, an exception to this rule is that many deaf people will identify themselves as ‘Deaf’ (with a capital ‘D’). This is because the word has been reclaimed and the capitalized ‘D’ refers to being a member of the Deaf community.
  • Common phases can still be used, for example, a person in a wheelchair can still be described as ‘going for a walk’ their experience of a walk is just different.
  • Do not use overly medical language as is reinforces the idea that those with a disability are unwell.
  • Use positive language – do not suggest someone is ‘wheelchair – bound’ as wheelchairs are liberating to many. Don’t describe anyone as ‘afflicted’ or ‘suffering with’ any type of disability, simply state it.
  • The People first method isn’t a definitive way to ensure you are always using the correct terminology. The theory behind this is that by using ‘people’ or ‘person’ before stating an impairment you can avoid dehumanisation. An example of this would be ‘a person with asthma’ instead of ‘asthmatic person’ so that asthma becomes the secondary attribute. This prescriptive system can lead to awkwardness, and I think is often seen as patronizing. It is also not a particularly succinct way to make descriptions.
  • If someone is working with an interpreter – speak to them directly, not the interpreter. This can be more difficult than it sounds, and goes against instinct to reply in the direction we hear a voice.
  • Think twice before using the blanket term ‘able bodied’ to describe someone without a disability. People with physical and mental impairments are protected by the DDA.
  • Don’t label people unnecessarily.  Most people do not identify themselves in one way only, and outside of discussing accessible provisions and compliance, disability is just another form of difference.

It is important to note that people are disabled by their physical environment, which is why we work so hard to remove these barriers.

Sources and further reading:

http://www.diversityinc.com/things-not-to-say/diversity-leaders-6-things-never-to-say-about-disabilities/

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-11-15/young-reporting-it-right/4371912

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/People-first_language

http://kidshealth.schn.health.nsw.gov.au/projects/disability/describing-people-disabilities

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/inclusive-communication/inclusive-language-words-to-use-and-avoid-when-writing-about-disability–2

Lucy Donaldson

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