Why actively choosing inclusive language helps us address our biases
Unconscious bias impacts how people experience the world, and this is most evident in the way we communicate. We choose our language, consciously or not. We can make active choices, being thoughtful about the words we use, or we can be passive, saying whatever comes to mind. When we are passive communicators, our biases easily emerge in our language.
We see this often when people reference the disability community—but with a bit of intention and patience, you can make better choices when referring to people with disabilities.
Using People-first Language
Too often, those in the disability community are identified by their disability alone. This dehumanizing language is referred to as identity-first language. It places the focus of a person’s humanity on their disability status rather than their personhood. We can avoid this by using people-first language, where we reference the person first in a sentence before mentioning their disability. For example, rather than saying “the blind person,” say “the person who is blind.” Advocates identify this as a way to humanize and focus on the person rather than their disability or disability status.
Remember that language evolves, and there are always exceptions to the rules. For example, the Deaf community and the Autistic rights community are groups who use identity-first terms, breaking the people-first rule.
Don’t stress if you’re unsure of what words to use. When in doubt use a style guide, like this one from the National Center on Disability and Journalism (NCDJ) or, if you’re addressing a specific group or person, just ask them how they want to be addressed or described.
Problematic Language About Disabilities
Even when using people-first language, we can still be offensive and inaccurate. For example, saying people are afflicted, suffering from, or a victim of a disability is incorrect as not everyone who has a disability is a victim and/or suffering. Similarly, not everyone who uses a wheelchair is wheelchair-bound or confined, as they may still have mobility outside of their wheelchair. These terms also only describe a person by their relationship to their disability or equipment. To keep the focus on the individual, the NCDJ recommends using neutral language and avoiding characterizations (“wheelchair bound”) when describing people with disabilities.
Casual Ableist Language
It is common to assume that people without disabilities are the default. One example is when someone leading a meeting says, “Take five minutes to walk around, get up, and stretch your legs,” wrongly thinking everyone in the room or on the call has that ability. Phrases and words like this exclude people with disabilities, invalidates their lived experience and can leave them feeling erased. Try being more inclusive and, in this example, simply ask people to take a break—you’re less likely to exclude people using a wheelchair or those who don’t have full use of their legs.
Changing Your Vocabulary
You’re going to make mistakes and that’s okay. It takes work to change your vocabulary, especially when you’ve been saying something one way for so long. When you recognize you’ve made a mistake, quickly and thoughtfully correct yourself. It can be as simple as saying, “Sorry, I meant…” Keep in mind, though, it’s not someone else’s job, particularly members of the disability community, to fix your language. And if you do get corrected, rather than feeling offended or defensive, appreciate their feedback and see it as an opportunity to do better see it as an opportunity to do better.
Using people-first language is not about being politically correct – it’s about exhibiting respect and acting upon empathetic values. If you value inclusion, diversity and disability rights, make sure your language reflects that. As communicators, we have the power to shape language and shift the way people see disability, both within and outside of our organization.