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Say What? Disability-inclusive Language

Six people with diverse disabilities in conversation
Image by pch.vector

In January 2019, the US Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD) adopted identity-first language across all its communications and resources. AHEAD embraces the word ‘disability’ in the hope of modelling a new way of thinking that will be embraced by the disability rights community. It invites others to think about the way they address disability. But what does identity-first language mean? What makes it different? And why should we consider it?

Why learning to talk about disability is important

Many people still don’t know how to approach disability, whether in everyday life or in writing. Some may avoid the subject for fear of being wrong or insensitive, which prevents us from having important conversations about disability and about good and fair representation. Some people may still use terms that are outdated or even deemed offensive (oftentimes without realizing it). Learning how to speak and write about disability is essential if we are to make the book sector more diverse and inclusive.

Person-first vs identity-first language: what’s the difference?

There are two predominant ways of addressing disability: using person-first language and using identity-first language. They shape how we think about and identify with disability.

Person-first or people-first language

The idea behind person-first language is to separate a person from their disability and to prioritize them, not the disability. Disability is something a person has rather than something that defines who they are. Person-first language attempts to separate the negative connotations and stigma surrounding disability from the person. Person-first language (with some exceptions) is generally taught or mandated as the preferred method of communicating about disability.

Examples: a person with a disability; a person with Down’s syndrome; a person who uses a wheelchair.

Identity-first language

Identity-first language puts the disability identity descriptor before the person. It embraces disability as an integral part of a person’s identity, challenges the stigma surrounding disability and helps people embrace their identity as members of the disabled community. The Association of University Centers on Disabilities notes that identity-first language has been embraced by many self-advocates in Deaf, Blind, and Autistic communities worldwide.

Examples: Disabled person; Autistic person; Deaf person.

Debate about person-first language mandates

Some guides promoting person-first language homogenize disability and disabled experiences, suggesting that there is only one correct way to address disability. This often results in officials and educational institutions labelling person-first language as the only acceptable option, while describing identity-first language as inherently offensive. However, organizations like AHEAD show that people should not be afraid of using identity-first language, because disabled people themselves often prefer it to person-first language.

Moreover, ‘Identity-first language challenges negative connotations by claiming disability directly. Identity-first language references the variety that exists in how our bodies and brains work with a myriad of conditions that exist, and the role of inaccessible or oppressive systems, structures, or environments in making someone disabled.’ (AHEAD, Statement on Language)

General mistakes to avoid

Whether we opt for person-first or identity-first language, there are some common mistakes or terms we should try to avoid. Here are some basic tips for talking about disability.

  • Recognize and avoid insulting terms.

  • Avoid euphemisms for disability. Examples: special needs; differently abled.

  • Use language that recognizes disabled people as active and independent individuals. Examples: disabled (people); has [name of the condition]; is a wheelchair user.

  • Avoid passive victim words. Examples: (the) disabled; suffers from; wheelchair bound.

  • Recognize that the disability community is very diverse and different people may prefer to be addressed in different ways.

Ultimately, don’t be afraid to ask questions and don’t worry too much about what is right or wrong – being overly concerned about appropriate and inappropriate language will prevent you from speaking about disability at all. People can make mistakes, and it’s important to recognize and learn from them.

Below you can find some additional guides and resources for further exploration:

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