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Diversity and Inclusion

How to talk about disability (and what not to say)

Let’s be real: it can be really tough to talk about disabilities, especially at work. But when we avoid talking about this important part of identity and human experience, we make disability invisible.

It isn’t just adjectives and technical terms that keep us tongue-tied. A survey by the disability charity Scope found that 67% of people reported they feel uncomfortable talking to people with disabilities at all because they fear being patronizing. It’s clear we need to

A rule of thumb

We all know, whether we have a disability or not, that the right terminology depends on the context and the individual person’s preferences.

We don’t want to be rude or exclusionary, but we also don’t want to be overly ‘politically correct’ which can be alienating and cringe-inducing in its own way. So amid this complexity, what can we do to have open, inclusive conversations that don’t sidestep disability?

Our suggested rule of thumb is to avoid patronizing or rude microaggressions and check in with individuals about their personal preferences. When you really can’t find out or are referring to a group of people that have different preferences, consider whether the majority of the community uses people-first language or identity-first language.

✨ 1. Avoid microaggressions

A microaggression is an exclusionary slight someone might say or do. They are usually unintentional or well-meaning but have the effect of making the receiver feel different from the norm and as though they don’t belong.

Microaggressions often reveal unconscious bias or stereotypes yet they can also result from someone just not knowing what to do and making a situation awkward.

📺 Watch this (4 mins)

Hear people with disabilities share awkward things to avoid saying about disability.

💡 Points that give us pause

🚩 “I don’t see myself as disabled, I see my environment that disables me”. (00:08 – 00:16)
🚩 Don’t panic if you say something awkward or insensitive by accident — it’ll only make things worse! Keep a cool head and move on. (00:38 – 01:08)
🚩 Try not to bring up a person’s disability when striking up small talk with a colleague, it could lead down a path of being patronizing or apologetic. (01:51 – 02:08)
🚩 Be sensitive — treat them with the same level of respect and dignity as you would for any other colleague. (02:15 – 02:53)
🚩 Stay clear of any derogatory terms, or terms with negative connotations like “handicapped”, “crippled” and “midget”. (02:55 – 03:47)

Other common microaggressions

❌ When a colleague is asked personal questions about their disability or health that would be clearly inappropriate if directed at someone that does not have that disability.

“Have you tried [insert the latest experimental treatment]?” is intrusive and risks suggesting that the recipient of this question isn’t doing enough to manage their disability.

❌ “Don’t you miss [insert something this person can no longer do due to their disability]? I don’t know what I’d do if I had to give it up.”

❌ When a colleague jokes with a wheelchair user, “Hey, how fast does that thing go?” or “Don’t run over my feet!!”. The tools used by people with disabilities to navigate the world don’t exist for others’ amusement.

🗨️ 2. Ask

Obviously, the best way to refer to a person is their name! But there are many scenarios in which you’ll need to use a label to share, connect and learn things that help you to be more inclusive. For example, “Is the venue suitable for our colleagues with ______?” or, “I want to learn more about what it’s like for you to work remotely with _______?”

Keep it simple, explain why you’re asking and ask what they prefer. Ideally, you should avoid putting someone on the spot in front of a group. Above all, resolve to use the language they ask you to and never tell them their preference is ‘wrong’.

⭐ 3. If you can’t ask, find out whether the majority of a community prefer people-first language or identity-first language

Although it’s inevitable that we’ll need to use labels, labeling people by one dimension can be insensitive if it reduces their identity to that single factor.

In the 1980s, conversations about how to refer to patients with mental illnesses led to the development of a way to structure phrases referring to people called people-first language.

🔮 Terminology Refresher: People-first language, person-first language or PFL does what it says on the tin. It’s an approach where you refer to the person first and their descriptor or ‘label’ after.

Some examples:

💡 “People with disabilities” is often preferred to “The disabled”

💡 “She has a mental illness” is often preferred to “She’s schizophrenic”

💡 “Employees with ADHD” is often preferred to “ADHD employees”

Following the people-first linguistic model is a simple way to separate the disability from the person and reframe it as something they ‘have’ or ‘live with’.

The alternative to people-first language is identity-first language

PFL has come under fire for buying into the shame it claims to end and blocking some groups’ or individuals’ preference to reclaim a label as part of their identity.

A popular counter-movement is identity-first language. Supporters of identity-first language often use a disability as an upfront adjective to highlight that a disability is a positive or matter-of-fact part of identity.

The Deaf community, for example, often favors identity-first language. Reclaiming a term like Deaf is known as linguistic reappropriation, and it’s a way of taking possession of language and control of the connotations.

Others just hate how clunky and unnatural people-first language can sound, making earnest conversations more uncomfortable and less effective.

Some examples of identity-first language:

💡 “The Deaf community” is often preferred to “People who are deaf” (note the capitalization of Deaf when describing a person or people)

💡 “I am an amputee.” is often preferred to “I am a person with an amputation.”

But remember, neither of these linguistic models provides a one-size-fits-all solution. The language policing that comes with any ‘rule’ can be understandably very upsetting if you’re told you refer to yourself or a loved one in the wrong way. Does the family on your street have, “a child with autism” or, “an autistic child”? Well, that should be for them to decide.

🗝️ Your key takeaway
Don’t shy away from conversations about disabilities. To start, avoid the microaggressions that make things awkward and ask individuals if they have a preference for how others can refer to their disability (and be clear and simple about why the question is relevant). Bear in mind the difference between people-first language and identity-first language — neither is a one-size-fits-all approach, but you’ll be able to understand and stick to preferences better once you grasp the two.

How to talk about disability (and what not to say)

Each week, we dip into the unanswerable, nuanced and gray areas of inclusion and offer, not answers, but inklings.

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Inclusion Works

This resource was taken from our Inclusion Works programme, which was created with a network of more than +100 diverse contributors and advisers. We learn from, amplify and cite creators of different races, ethnicities, genders and cognitive styles and continually work to represent all dimensions of diversity.