Inclusive Language and Talking about Disabilities

04-21-22 Catherine Meade

An individual is much more than their disabilities, and communication is important. Here are some recommendations on how you can interact with people with disabilities in a respectful manner.

Interacting with and writing about people who have disabilities is part of our jobs as accessibility advocates, testers and testing moderators, and members of society. However, not everyone is an expert in talking to or about people with disabilities.

Many of us consider respect for our fellow humans to be a core value. Using inclusive language when talking about disabilities is a sign of respect for those of us who have them.

When discussing a person with a disability, don’t lead with the disability. Present the person first. A person is more than their disability and should be treated as such.

Even though people may have a single disability (“He is blind.”), no single person is totally without ability (“He is disabled.”). People with disabilities are not “suffering from” or “a victim of” their disability; the disability is just one part of who they are.

Do this:

Not this:

  • “A blind person.”
  • “The deaf woman, Jane.”
  • “She is afflicted with mental illness.”
  • “They are a disabled person.”
  • “He is disabled.”

Never use terms like “crippled,” “handicapped,” “dumb,” “retarded,” “differently-abled,” or “handicapable.” These phrases are no longer considered appropriate to use, whether in writing or speech. They come across as offensive, ignorant, or just plain condescending.

On that note, let me clarify the differences between a “handicap” and a “disability,” as that might be the term in the list that surprised you. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an impairment is “any temporary or permanent loss or abnormality of a body structure or function, whether physiological or psychological,” a disability is “a restriction or inability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being, mostly resulting from an impairment,” and a handicap is “the result of an impairment or disability that limits or prevents the fulfillment of one or several roles regarded as normal, depending on age, sex, and social and cultural factors.”

Alternatively, a handicap may be the device or technology that corrects the circumstance, such as in golf or other sports. Calling a person “handicapped” is inherently negative. It is typically acceptable to use “handicap” in common phrases, such as “handicapped parking.” Just try to avoid calling a person “handicapped.”

(Though I, as someone with a disability and an accessible parking permit, tend to refer to reserved parking spaces as “accessible parking.”)

Additionally, not everyone appreciates the term “disability.” For example, many people who identify with deaf culture especially may take offense at the phrase, as being deaf is often a core aspect of their social culture.

So, here is the big takeaway: As with race, gender, and other categories of personhood, it is usually best to refer to a person by the terms they use to refer to themselves. And if you’re unsure, ask the person how they would like you to refer to them.

Six Tips for Interacting with People with Disabilities

I want to describe a few common situations to equip you to have comfortable conversations with people from the disability community. Here are six tips for interacting well:

1. Let Them Bring It Up

Try not to ask questions about someone’s disability unless they bring it up first. It is probably not necessary for every interaction. So let it go. Additionally, it’s totally fine to use common phrases and idioms around someone with a disability, such as saying “I’ll see what I can do” around a person who is blind. It’s only awkward if you make it awkward.

2. Assume Capability

We tend to assume that someone with a motor disability can’t drive or someone with an auditory impairment can’t enjoy music. Instead of assuming someone can’t do something, assume they can unless they say otherwise.

Additionally, do not assume you know how to help. Let them ask for what they need if they need it.

3. Ask Permission before Helping and Wait for Them to Say It’s Okay

This is a pretty common mistake. We often want to be thoughtful, helpful human beings, but we do not always stop to think if someone actually wants or needs our help. If offering to lead someone who is blind, ask if they would like your help. If they say yes, offer your elbow for them to hold. Do not just grab onto someone who cannot see you. That’s an invasion of personal space, and potentially scary for them! Let the person know when you’re turning and when there might be something in their path. Additionally, you can place their hand on a chair to let them know where to sit. Ask first!

The same is true for someone who uses a wheelchair or other assistive device for mobility. The assistive device is sort of like an extension of that person’s body. If you would not grab on to a person without asking, you should not grab on to their assistive equipment.

Back to that idea of “person first,” if someone has a dog to help them with their disability, introduce yourself to the person before you start talking to the dog. It’s polite to speak to a human before their pet, but you should not interact with any service animal without the express permission of their owner. The animal is likely performing important tasks and you could distract them.

4. ​​​​Shouting Does Not Make You Easier to Understand

When speaking with someone who has an auditory impairment, we may be inclined to speak loudly in hopes that they hear us better. Shouting can, however, distort your sounds and facial expressions, making it worse. Instead, speak at a normal volume, facing the person with the disability, so that they can see your mouth to lip read and so that you do not risk causing pain via any hearing aid device.

5. Sit Down When Speaking with Someone Who Uses a Wheelchair

Standing up while talking with someone who uses a wheelchair can be physically uncomfortable for that person. They can get a stiff neck pretty fast! So sit down or attempt to get on a similar level. It won’t seem condescending, and it will make everyone more comfortable.

6. Treat Adults Like Adults

We tend to speak in simplified terms to children or people with cognitive disabilities. Unfortunately, “talking down to them” is one of the most common complaints of people with disabilities. For example, it’s condescending to call someone by their first name while addressing others more formally. If you treat everyone equally from the start, there won’t be any accidental offense.

“People with disabilities are individuals with families, jobs, hobbies, likes and dislikes, and problems and joys. While the disability is an integral part of who they are, it alone does not define them. Don’t make them into disability heroes or victims. Treat them as individuals.”

The United Spinal Association

Inclusive Language Matters

At Sparkbox, we view accessibility not as an option but as a requirement for building a better web for everyone. The first step to accessibility is inclusivity and understanding how to interact well with people who have disabilities. As someone with a disability, it can mean so much to me on a personal level when we discuss disabilities with respect.

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