Do’s and don’ts of disability language: A guide

front cover of the What Do I Say? booklet.Language etiquette around the topic of disability seems to get some people tongue-tied. Fear of offending often results in just that. But so does using outmoded terms such as “handicapped”. So what are the do’s and don’ts of terminology and language use? People with Disability Australia (PWDA) have a great guide. It gives a context to the importance of language and how it relates to dignity and respect. It is based on the social model of disability. That is, disability is not an individual medical problem. Disablement is the result of an environment filled with physical and social barriers.

Should you say “People with disability” or “disabled person?” It depends on the individual. However, government policies use the person first version – people with disability. The one to avoid is “the disabled” because it dismisses people and puts this diverse group into one category. The same can be said for “the elderly”. 

Adaptations of the word disability, or euphemisms, should not be used either. Terms such as differently-abled, special needs, or handicapable sound clever but are demeaning. Other terms such as “all abilities” suggests the opposite – a special place for people with disability. If it is inclusive it shouldn’t need a “special” title. However, accessible features can be included in any descriptions of the place or service.

The PWDA guide gives an overview of ableist language and its impact, some advice on reporting on disability, and a list of words and recommended alternatives. 

One other important aspect of reporting on disability is what the late Stella Young described as “inspriational porn” in an entertaining TED talk. The portrayal of a person doing everyday things, or achieving a goal, as being inspiring gets the no-go signal. People with disability are often portrayed in the media as being “sufferers” or “heroes”. Rarely is either the case. 

How shall I say that? is a magazine article written from a personal perspective.

There is also a style guide for journalists