BLOG 10th January 2020

Language Tips and Tricks in Disability for Non-Disabled People

The world of language is ever-evolving and intrinsic to the expression of culture, informing others and undoubtedly serving an important social purpose in its use as linguistic communication. Culture, its shared values and traditions, are conveyed through the communication of belief, value and custom – making language an important function of group identity and solidarity.

Language is also subject to personal preference and we should always endeavour to listen and respect the person or people that the language is addressing, even beyond general agreement on basic guidelines.

Disabled People

The word “disabled” is a description, rather than a collective term. As such the use of terms such as “the disabled” is incorrect. “Disabled People” is a more desirable term in which it is preferred that both Disabled and People are capitalised. 99% of the time, identity-first language is preferred. For example, many Autistic People prefer identity-first language, as the opposite creates focus on the theme of a “disorder” rather than Autism, being by and of itself, a part of their human make-up.

Senior Citizens have voiced a preference for this collective term rather than “the elderly” or “old person”. In the instance of physical or mental difference as a result of the life cycle, Senior Citizens prefer the term “Age Related Disability”.

The use of this language allows Disabled People to know that a project, workshop or event is being run and presented by a welcoming organisation aware of the language preferences of the identified community. Medical labels are to be avoided as they do more to reinforce “patient” stereotypes. They may be seen as an invasion of privacy if consent was not first obtained from the individual/s involved.

Positive rather than negative phrases

Phrases such as “suffers from” or “confined to a wheelchair” suggest barriers and hopelessness that may not be present in the individual or collective experience of whom you are talking about. “Wheelchair user” and “{name}, a Disabled Person” are much preferred.

Everyday phrases such as “going for a walk” or “pleased to see you” are comfortable for most Disabled People.

Passive, victimising words do not respect Disabled People as active individuals with autonomy over their own lives. Such words include “invalid”, “deaf and dumb”, “mental patient” and should be replaced with more autonomous language – “Disabled Person”, “BSL/ISL speaker” (British/International Sign Language), “mental health service user”.

PWD, shortened version of “person with Disability”, is preferred by some people but not all. This is known as person-first language rather than identity-first. More commonly used in some areas than others, it is best to use identity-first language until checking with the specific person or group what their language preference is.

d/Deaf People

d/Deaf people identity themselves in two main categories. Those who use the capital D usually identify themselves with Deaf Culture and do not see themselves as Disabled. Identity-first language is an absolute must in this case as the opposite is akin to saying “a person with blackness”. d/Deaf people whose first language is BSL/ISL may consider themselves a part of the d/Deaf community and may prefer this collective term. In copy, writing “Disabled and/or d/Deaf People” is the best route.


It is good practice to specify what is meant by the word Accessibility. This term usually refers to Physical and Social Accessibility. It can be helpful to capitalise these terms for those who have different methods of reading larger pieces of text. Think about your audience and ask if unsure.


Capitalisation has a whole new set of rules when it comes to the culture of Disability. Apart from the cultural aspects of it, capitalisation increases accessibility of text for screen readers amongst others. For example, in a hashtag - rather than writing ‘#accessanddisability’, change it to ‘#AccessAndDisability’.

In large bodies of text, some devices will pick up CAPITAL LETTERS at the start of words to signify destination – for example, Cultural Organisations may have capitalised letters so that a device user with learning impairments can search and provide a definition of what a cultural organisation is.

Issues, limitations, impairment

These terms are linked closely to social model terminology. A person may not identify with having an impairment but poor access in a building may impair them. A more appropriate term would be seen in the example below:

“I have sensory impairments” = no

“I have sensory needs” = yes

Personal assistants, support workers, next of kin

These are always the EMPLOYEE and the Disabled and/or d/Deaf Person is the EMPLOYER. It is important to specify that a personal assistant has a different set of care provisions than a support worker. Some people also think they must be officially employing someone through a social worker or agency in order to bring that person to an event. It is therefore essential to add the term ‘next of kin’ so they are able to bring anybody who supports them.

Sugar coating - Infantilizing terminology is all-too-prevalent in journalistic media.

Phrases such as “DIFabled”, “{person} does great thing DESPITE DISABILITY” or “overcoming Disability” are embarrassing to the individual or group involved.

Some Disabled People may choose to use the term “differently abled” but check the individual’s preference before using this as many find it offensive and belittling.

This may be a lot of information to chew on so let’s break it down slightly to my top 10 tips for ease of use:

  • Disabled People > the Disabled
  • Senior Citizen with Age Related Disability = yes
  • Autistic Person or They have Autism/are Autistic > Suffers from Autism
  • PWD = for those who prefer it
  • d/Deaf and BSL/ISL speaker = yes
  • Positive terminology = PLEASE! And don’t infantilise!
  • Accessibility – try to specify what type of Access you’re talking about
  • Capitalisation – for cultural labels, hashtags and searchable terms
  • Social model > medical model
  • Personal Assistant / Support Worker / Next of Kin are employees of the Disabled and/or d/Deaf Person

Above all REMEMBER –

ASK the person/people you are referencing or address what they prefer.

LISTEN to Disabled and/or d/Deaf People when they tell you what they prefer.

Have a go! Unless you refuse to change your terminology, don’t get caught up in getting it 100% right every time. Disabled and d/Deaf People would rather you speak to them than avoid them, worried you might say the wrong thing.

Reading this article is a great first step and shows that you have a desire to communicate correctly! And just like any new skill, putting research into practice is important.

We’re used to hearing all sorts of language used to address and describe our existence. Non-Disabled People making a genuine effort to use the correct language is much appreciated. If you’re unsure – just ask!


Author: Rae Sofley, access consultant and artist. Rae will be delivering a series of free ‘Build Your Dream Venue’ workshops for venues who want to improve their accessibility. To sign up, visit our events page.

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