When it comes to discussing people’s disabilities, it’s important to pay attention to your word choice. The start of Disability Pride Month is a great opportunity to look at the many well-intended statements that can come off as offensive or condescending. Also, it may feel like the “correct” words or phrases are constantly evolving. This sentiment is valid, especially because, in many cases, there is no consensus regarding the right way to discuss this personal and sensitive topic.
Like members of any other collective group, the individual opinions and preferences of people with disabilities often vary. Still, it’s good to be aware of language best practices, even though you must remember to be flexible to show true respect. Verbit is looking at a few common language issues to consider when discussing people with disabilities.
Understanding person-first language
Person-first language places the emphasis on the individual, not the disability. Examples of person-first language include “person with disabilities,” “person who is Deaf” or “person with epilepsy.” Many people opt for person-first language as opposed to saying “disabled person.” Person-first language is a good practice to follow as a way to demonstrate respect for people with disabilities. However, you might hear or read about those who take the opposite approach.
Identity-first language involves putting the disability first because many people feel that their disability is a crucial aspect of their identity. These individuals may refer to themselves and request that you refer to them as a “blind person” rather than “person who is blind.” Respecting personal choices is more important than selecting a “best practice” and following it even if the person you’re referring to objects.
In general, person-first is a respectful way to discuss people with disabilities. However, a good approach is to opt for person-first but to stay flexible when someone requests otherwise.
Whether or not to capitalize “Deaf”
You might’ve seen the word “Deaf” capitalized in some places and not in others. Many people capitalize “Deaf” because they view themselves as a member of “Deaf culture.” Like other languages, those who speak American Sign Language (ASL) consider that language a critical part of their culture.
Not every person who is hard of hearing feels this way though. Many people don’t know ASL, especially if they become hard of hearing later in life. Those individuals might not view being deaf a part of their culture. As a result, many individuals use “deaf” with a lowercase “d.” Additionally, “deaf” may refer to the physiological condition of not being able to hear.
Here is an example of each of these options in context:
“Dave is a person who is Deaf and a member of Deaf culture.”
“Dave is a person who is deaf, and will require captions to participate in today’s meeting.”
While it might be appropriate to use either a capitalized or lowercase version of the word “Deaf,” it’s good to understand the reasoning behind these choices. As with “person-first” language, it’s also important to respect individual preferences.
Stay away from euphemisms (even well-meaning ones)
Over the years, you’ve likely heard some euphemisms for disabilities. While the people who choose to use those terms often mean well, these phrases can be condescending. It’s better to use specific language instead of avoiding referencing a person’s disability.
Some examples of euphemisms include “handicapable,” “challenged” and “differently-abled.” In contrast, you can reference the specific disability, as in “person who is blind.” Naming a disability isn’t automatically offensive, but acting like you’re afraid to mention one might be. With that said, naming even specific disabilities without any reason is something you should avoid.
Don’t mention a person’s disability unless it’s relevant
Sometimes people might mention a person’s disability, even when it’s irrelevant. For example, consider this sentence: “My colleague Mary, who is Deaf, wrote this memo.” In this case, the fact that Mary is Deaf doesn’t seem relevant, so there’s no need to include that fact in the statement.
In other situations, a person’s disability is relevant to the story. For instance, consider the above sentence in this different context: “My colleague Mary, who is Deaf, wrote this memo. It discusses the importance of captioning our Zoom meetings so that she and other employees who are Deaf can participate.” The additional context shows why Mary is a good person to advocate for herself and her colleagues on this issue.
Avoid treating people with disabilities as victims (or superhuman)
Certain words tend to express pity for people with disabilities. Someone might not even think about the connotations of saying, “Jim suffers from hearing loss.” The word “suffers” conveys pity and portrays Jim as a victim. However, Jim might identify as a member of the Deaf community. Portraying this part of his identity as something he suffers portrays him as a victim. Taking this approach could be offensive.
It’s better to stick to neutral phrasing that simply states the facts, such as “Jim is hard of hearing.” Another tendency to avoid is describing people with disabilities as “heroes” or “inspirations” just for doing their jobs. For example, if Jim did a great job on a report, tell him he did a great job on the report. Don’t include over-the-top praise like, “Jim’s a hero to us all. He’s overcome so many obstacles.”
This issue often arises during the Paralympics, when people without disabilities talk about the athletes as “inspirational.” Those who use this phrasing might intend to honor athletes and people with disabilities. Instead, it treats these individuals as something other than human. Additionally, it conveys the message that all people with disabilities can and should live to create inspirational stories. Journalist, activist and academic Dr. Francis Ryan explained that this practice is called “inspiration porn.”
Dr. Ryan pointed out two major problems with calling people with disabilities as “inspirational.” First, it paints disability as a tragedy and people who are disabled as in need of people’s pity. Second, the intention of this approach seems to be to give people without disabilities a “warm fuzzy feeling.” It’s better to respect people with disabilities for the individuals they are and not try to shape them into a feel-good story for other people’s benefit.
Emphasize accessibility, not disability
Phrases like “handicapped parking” or “handicapped bathroom” are common in our vocabulary and even on signs. However, these types of statements are outdated and potentially offensive. It’s easy to exchange these phrases for something positive like “accessible parking” or “accessible bathroom.”
Although this list is far from complete, it’s a good starting point. Remember to continue listening and paying attention to your language and how it impacts people with disabilities. Putting in the effort to choose your words mindfully isn’t much to ask. Making these changes is one important way to show your respect for others.
As a provider of accessibility solutions, Verbit is an essential partner to businesses working to create an inclusive workplace environment. Contact us to find out how we can support your company’s accessibility initiatives.