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Can I say that? A guide to inclusive language

By Apricus Health

22nd October 2021

Language is an exceedingly influential tool and can be used to create a feeling of empowerment, pride, individuality, and purpose. Inversely, improper use of language can have a demoralising impact, even with the best of intentions.

Inclusive language: is language that is respectful and encourages the acknowledgement and importance of all people. It is language which is free from words, phrases or tones that demean, offend, exclude, stereotype, infantilise or trivialise people based on their membership of a specific group or because of a particular attribute

When it comes to interacting with people who have disabilities or differences, you may have wondered, ‘can I say that?’, ‘Is that offensive?’, ‘am I stereotyping’ or maybe you have avoided having the dialogue altogether.

All the scenarios above are understandable. It’s acceptable not to know how to navigate these exchanges. No two people are going to have the same view on language and although these tips are a great guide, the best approach is to communicate with them directly and ask them what is and isn’t suitable for them. It is better to acknowledge your inexperience and ask questions, to become better informed and comfortable within such conversations.

It can be difficult to keep up with what is the acceptable terminology, but as inclusive language evolves, our empathy, vocabulary and specific word choice should shift in tandem.

Next time you’re communicating (verbally or non-verbally), with someone with a disability or difference, follow these helpful suggestions to ensure your language is inclusive.

  • Focus on the person, not their disability. Mention disability only if it is relevant and necessary. If it is necessary, use person-first language: ‘person with a disability’ or ‘people living with disabilities’
  • Don’t imply people with disabilities are victims or require pity. People with disabilities are often seen as helpless or to be cared for rather than equal members of society.
  • A person who uses a wheelchair is not ‘bound’ or ‘confined to a wheelchair’. They are enabled and liberated by it – it can become an extension of their body. Say “wheelchair user” or “person who uses a wheelchair”, instead.
  • Avoid euphemisms and made-up phrases like ‘people of all abilities’, ‘disAbility’, ‘diffAbled’ or ‘special needs’ as they are patronising and a denial of reality.
  • Give praise where required, but don’t imply that a person living with a disability is heroic or inspirational, just because they are doing something and doing it well.
  • Carparks, bathrooms and other spaces should be referred to as accessible spaces not disabled spaces.

Hopefully these guidelines help you enter conversations in a way that is mindful of an individual’s or audience’s preferences and alleviate social awkwardness.