Using disability inclusive language in the workplace
Language is a tool
Language is a tool to communicate with other people. And it’s a very complex tool. It’s always evolving. Sometimes, we might struggle to understand the latest slang. Or we have to start using new phrases and expressions. Before 2020, had you ever said you were ‘going for a socially distanced walk’?
People worry about talking about disability
We also use language to build relationships and connect with others. At Scope, many people tell us they worry when it comes to talking about disability. They are scared they will use offensive words. And they often say they want to make sure they are being politically correct.
Because of this fear, people can avoiding talking about disability. And they might even avoid talking to disabled people. Instead of being a way to connect, language becomes a barrier.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Inclusive language can help make you feel more confident in the workplace.
What is inclusive language?
Inclusive language is about being more mindful of how we talk. It’s about recognising that:
- language holds power
- language can help shift attitudes
- language can impact how we think of different groups
- language can help us promote equality, diversity and inclusion
- language can make people feel included or excluded
Inclusive language is not just about removing specific words from your vocabulary. And it applies to more than disability. It also applies to other marginalised characteristics.
It’s not about rigid rules
You might think inclusive language is another set of rules to learn. But that’s not how humans use language. Rules are rigid. They can feel intimidating. Instead of focusing on rules, think about principles. Principles are more flexible. They let us adapt to individuals, and to different environments.
This is also how you can let go of ‘political correctness’ (PC). This term has been used to mean very different things. It has become controversial. And it’s often used to dismiss the importance of language. People have also talked about ‘being offensive’ to say that people are being too sensitive.
Using inclusive language doesn’t mean we are ‘trying to be PC’ or we are being unnecessarily cautious. Inclusive language is about respect. It’s about:
- addressing people how they want to be addressed
- thinking about how our words can be interpreted
- understanding how our language has been shaped
It still takes commitment, and a purposeful shift. But it’s not about blame. It’s not about trying to restrict people. It’s about creating an inclusive environment.
Guidelines can still be appropriate
There are still contexts where guidance is important or necessary. For example, you might want to create a style guide. This is because when you are writing for a wider audience, you need to communicate in a different way. You need to reach as many people as possible. And you need to be consistent.
Having guidance and tools can also help with day-to-day communication. It can give staff a basis. But they should always keep learning from people and their own preferences.
Using inclusive language to talk about people
Language around disability can feel complicated because not everyone agrees. At Scope, we recommend that organisations use the social model of disability. And this also means using social model language.
Including people with our language can also involve:
- using plain English
- avoiding acronyms
- avoiding jargon
Talking about a group of people
The social model of disability says it’s not someone’s condition or impairment that disables them. It’s the barriers created by society. For this reason, we talk about ‘disabled people’ and not ‘people with a disability’.
We understand that not everyone identifies with this term. So we also use ‘people with a condition or impairment’.
We always respect people’s individual choices. So we would never change a direct quote from someone if they use a different term.
But as a general guideline, we recommend the following:
- disabled people
- people with a condition
- people with an impairment
- people with a condition or impairment
- the disabled
- people with a disability
- people with disabilities
Talking about a person
If you are talking about an individual, it’s the same principle. As a general guideline, we recommend the following:
- a disabled person
- a person with a condition
- a person with an impairment
- a person with a condition or impairment
- a person with a disability
- a person with disabilities
The difference is that individuals might have their own preference. You should always respect people’s preference.
Talking about specific conditions
Sometimes, you might need to refer to a specific condition, or specific circumstances. It wouldn’t be possible to cover every single example in this article.
There are some general principles that are likely to apply. Avoid negative terms such as:
- a victim of
- suffers from
One common example is about wheelchair users. Avoid saying that someone is:
- confined to a wheelchair
- bound to a wheelchair
These do not describe the reality. Many wheelchair users can walk and see their chair as a source of independence. Even if someone uses a wheelchair full time, they are inaccurate expressions.
If you need to refer to a group, the general advice is to check an organisation focused on this condition. Many will have a page to explain their choice of language. But you should check that they involve people with this condition in their work:
- Do they have people with this condition on their board of Trustees?
- Do they co-produce their work?
What about non-disabled people?
Sometimes, you might need to refer to people who are not disabled. As a general guideline:
- non-disabled people
- a non-disabled person
Using inclusive language to talk about the world around us
There are some disability-related expressions you might need to use at work. What matters most is that people can understand you. But some expressions are more inclusive.
Accessible toilet and accessible parking
This is because these facilities make the world more accessible. When people say ‘disabled toilet’ and ‘disabled parking’, they often focus on the wheelchair symbol that represents them.
People often associate assistance dogs with guide dogs. But they are not the only reason people have an assistance dog. Signs such as ‘no dogs except guide dogs’ are not accurate. And people with an assistance dog can sometimes worry that it means the business is not aware about the different types of assistance dogs.
This is a helpful general expression if you are not sure how to describe someone’s mobility aid. This covers canes, crutches, wheelchairs, scooters and more.
This is also a general expression to describe a range of support.
Creative words or euphemisms
Some creative words have appeared to refer to disabled people. Scope does not recommend the use of these words. These are words like:
- differently abled
We recommend using ‘disabled’ because this acknowledges the social model of disability.
People also use euphemisms such as ‘special needs’ to avoid saying ‘disabled’. In an educational context, you might talk about ‘children with special educational needs’. But saying that an adult ‘is special needs’ can be infantilising.
Preferences versus unacceptable words
We’ve explained there are disagreements around certain terms. Sometimes it’s a matter of preference. But there are also terms that have simply become unacceptable. Some of them are being reclaimed by disabled activists. But they are not for general use.
Some examples of unacceptable words are:
Cultural context can matter. For example, certain states in the USA talk about ‘a handicapped placard’ to refer to a blue badge.
Remember inclusive language isn’t about rigid rules. But it’s about respect and being aware of how you communicate.
Join our next 90 minute introduction to disability inclusion course. You’ll learn more about social model language and barriers in an online session with our accessibility experts.
For an example of how an organisation can use inclusive language, read Scope’s house style guide.
Partner with us
We believe partnerships can help us build a more inclusive and accessible society. One where disabled people experience equality and fairness.
To do this, we partner with organisations to work on larger strategic goals together. For wider social change. For their customers. For their clients. For their employees.