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A guide to talking about disability

Language matters when we talk about people and their experiences. The words we choose can shape how we see others and their abilities. That’s why it’s important to use language that respects and centres people, rather than focusing solely on their disability.

This article is here to help you understand the dos and don’ts when talking about disability.

Understanding the right terms is key. For example, ‘impairment’ refers to a medical condition, which might lead to someone having a disability. But ‘disability’ itself is often more about how society is set up—for example, buildings without ramps or attitudes that exclude—and not just about the medical condition. This difference is important because it shows how much our environment and attitudes impact people’s lives.

What language should we use when talking about disability?

If we want to be allies to people with disability, the language we use is important. If we use respectful language people feel seen for who they are. This includes respecting how people choose to identify themselves.

It’s important not to label someone without knowing what they prefer. For example, some people who are deaf might see themselves as part of the Deaf community, which has its own language and culture, and they may not identify as having a disability.

A good general rule is to try not to describe someone just by their disability unless they tell you that’s what they prefer. It’s helpful to think of disability as a broad term rather than something that defines a person.

If you need clarification on what someone prefers just ask them. If for some reason you can’t ask it’s good to use person-first language. This means you talk about the person first, before mentioning any disability they might have. Here’s how you can do it:

  • a person with disability
  • a person who is deaf or hard of hearing
  • a person with mental illness, a person with a psychiatric condition

This approach helps to emphasise that someone’s condition is just one part of who they are, not the whole story.

On the flip side, some people prefer to use identity-first language. This means that they identify themselves as a ‘disabled person’ rather than a ‘person with a disability’. Many disabled people prefer this as they want to show that having a disability isn’t a bad thing, it’s just part of who they are. They see their disability as an important piece of their identity, something that makes them unique.

To get a better perspective on the word disabled and why it’s important to a lot of people check out this clip from ABC’s You Can’t Ask That:

The main thing to remember is, If someone gives you feedback on the words you’ve used, acknowledge your mistake and apologise. This approach can help you learn more about the language that people feel respects their identity and the preferences of the disability community.

Avoid outdated terms, tropes, and ableist pitfalls

When talking about disabilities, avoid terms like ‘handicapped,’ ‘suffers from,’ or ‘victim of.’ These are outdated and can be hurtful. Instead, use language that respects and recognises the person first, for example, ‘person with a disability’ or ‘Jane lives with disability’.

Mobility Aids

Mobility aids are devices designed to assist people who have difficulties moving around. These aids include items like canes, crutches, walkers, wheelchairs, and motorised scooters, each serving to support different levels of mobility.

When talking about people that use mobility aids try and be aware of your assumptions. This is particularly really important when talking about people who use wheelchairs. Avoid terms like ‘wheelchair bound’. Mobility aids like wheelchairs aren’t burdens to the people who use them, they allow them to get around more freely.

We all have unconscious biases, and the first step towards breaking these is acknowledging that we have them. If you find yourself thinking like this, it’s good to challenge yourself about why you’re attaching a negative to something that means freedom and inclusion to wheelchair users?

For further information on the importance of mobility aids check out this video.

The ‘poor thing’ and ‘superhero’ tropes — why you should avoid them

Another tip, beware of falling into pity or superhero stereotypes in discussions about disability. These cliches or ‘tropes’ oversimplify people’s lives, either by casting them as sad objects to be pitied, or unrealistically portraying them as heroic. 

Common phrases that fall into the superhero trope are terms like ‘differently abled’ or ‘difability.’ While these are meant to be empowering they come across as patronising and minimise the challenges people with disability face. These phrases can also take the focus off the changes we need to make in society to improve the lives of people with disabilities. They can also imply that a person’s worth should be measured by their abilities, hence the discomfort in admitting that someone has a dis-ability and the need to turn people with disabilities into superheroes. 

A simple way of thinking about this is to apply it to a different group. Would you say ‘differently raced’? If you did you’d have disregarded someone’s identity? Apply the same thinking when speaking about people with disability. For more information on this check out this video.

Not all disabilities are visible

It’s important to remember that not all disabilities are visible, in fact, most of them are invisible. Some examples are conditions like fibromyalgia, autism, multiple sclerosis, or myalgic encephalomyelitis commonly known as chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS).

There’s no definitive Australian data on what percentage of disabilities are invisible. However, estimates suggest it could be as high as 80 percent. This is why it’s important to never assume that a person doesn’t have a disability based on the way they look.

People with invisible disabilities often choose not to disclose that they live with disability. Current statistics tell us that around 88% of people who live with invisible disability who work choose not to tell their employer. This is due to factors like fear of discrimination, internalised shame, and wanting to appear ‘normal.’ This leads to these people receiving no support or accommodations for their needs which can impact physical and mental health, work performance, and negatively impact relationships.

Having an invisible disability also comes with the burden of having to educate others. Imagine having to have to justify why you’re parking there or using that toilet, all while dealing with chronic pain and fatigue.

One way the disability community is dealing with this issue is to come up with innovative ideas like the sunflower symbol. The sunflower is becoming recognised internationally as a visual identifier that the person wearing it has an invisible disability and may require extra assistance.

To get a better perspective on what it’s like to live with an invisible disability check out this video.

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