Updated: Apr 20
More awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion means more talk about the 'right way' to discuss disability. That’s important. We all want to show respect to the 1 in 6 Australians living with disability. Inclusive language is one important way to do that.
But how do you know the correct thing to say?
While there’s no single correct answer, there is a respectful one.
Using inclusive language should not be a militant activity
Wherever possible, find out if the person prefers person-first or identity-first language. Respect their choice. If you don’t know a person's preference or your content is more general in nature, there are guidelines you can follow to be as respectful and inclusive as possible.
This article looks at some of these preferences, the reasons for them and how to choose the best options.
Why language matters
You might recall the old schoolyard chant: sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.
Bones can heal.
But hurtful words, especially when repeated over time, can leave lifelong scars and damage a person's sense of self-worth.
At its core, inclusive language aims to welcome all people. It does not reinforce harmful stereotypes, intimidate, offend or belittle. It sees people as people, regardless of disability, race, gender, sexuality or age.
Some people consider their disability as central to their identity. It's part of who they are. That's where person-first and identity-first language comes into play.
The social model of disability and inclusive language
The way we think about disability and its place within our diverse community affects the language we choose.
Under the social model of disability, people don't have disabilities, they have impairments.
The Australian Federation of Disability Organisations (AFDO) says the social model recognises the barriers that make life harder for people with disability. Things like:
Buildings without ramps or accessible toilets
Poorly structured websites
Attitudes around what people with a disability can or can't do.
By contrast, the medical model focuses on what 'is wrong' with a person. What needs to be treated, fixed or cured. Under the medical model, people are disabled by their impairments or differences.
AFDO believes the medical model leads to low expectations and loss of independence. They say the social model highlights how, by removing barriers to inclusion, people with disability can enjoy greater independence, choice, and control over their lives.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities follows the social model. The Australian Government also adheres to this convention.
These models help explain the difference between saying 'people with a disability' (medical model) and 'people with disability' (social model).
Person-first versus identity-first language
As described above, the social model of disability puts the person first. Their disability does not define them. Their disability is created by a world that doesn’t accommodate their impairments or differences.
Person-first and identity-first language both align with the social model. The difference between them is in the focus.
When you use person-first language, the focus is on the individual, so you would say 'person/people with disability'.
Identity-first language focuses on a sense of culture and community. It allows individuals to embrace their disability as part of who they are. Just as they might be Australian, transexual, or Buddhist, they are also disabled. In this case, you would say 'disabled person'.
In Australia, the disability community favours person-first language
AFDO and its member organisations in Australia use person-first language.
In its publication, What Do I Say? A guide to language about disability, People with Disability Australia says person-first language avoids unnecessary focus on a person's disability.
'The dehumanisation of people with disability is still a huge problem and has been for a long period of history, so we choose to preface our language with a reminder of personhood,' they explain.
'People with disability are people first – people who have families, who work, and who participate in our communities. People with disability want our lives to be respected and affirmed. In addition, many people with disability are proud of being disabled, and want that identity respected.'
Some groups prefer identity-first language
Individuals and specific disability communities may prefer identity-first language. The choice of identity-first language highlights disability as central to a person's identity.
Language can also measurably influence a person's self-esteem. In a 2022 online survey of 11,212 people, of whom two in three identified as autistic, 76.2% of autistic adults said they only use identity-first language when referring to their autism. This compares with 3.9% who said they only use ‘person with autism’.
The poll also asked people to respond to the phrase “I like being autistic”. 70% of those who call themselves autistic’ said they liked being autistic, compared with 37% of ‘people with autism’.
Should you use a capital letter?
As well as identity-first language, some people also use a capital letter to embrace their disability community and culture. This is particularly so in the Autistic and Deaf communities.
In her article, I am Autistic with a capital A, neurodivergent self-advocate Kristy Forbes says autism is her identity.
'Being Autistic means I am a particular type of human being. I share commonalities with other Autistic human beings in the way I think, feel, do and be. I’m not disordered. I belong to a family of neurobiologically diverse human beings, often referred to as Neurodivergent people.'
Among people who are deaf, a capital 'D' is often used by those who identify as members of the Auslan (Australian Sign Language) Deaf community. Lower case 'd' is used where deaf is a general term to describe the physical condition of hearing impairment.
These are not a universal rules. It comes down to individual choice. If appropriate, ask. If you can't, follow broad community preferences, understand the reasons, and be consistent.
Avoid words that tiptoe around disability
Euphemisms, or expressions that side-step the word disability, can be offensive and counterproductive.
Words like 'differently-abled', 'diffability', 'handicapable', 'physically challenged', and 'special needs' dilute the experience of disability. Advocates say they distract from the societal changes that could make a fairer world for everyone.
Instead, they have challenged non-disabled people to #UseTheWord, explaining that avoiding it is like suggesting race or gender doesn't matter. They say it is a naive and privileged position that ignores the discrimination and accessibility barriers people with disability face every day.
Be aware of disability language preferences and ask where possible
Language choices around disability are as unique as individuals themselves. Find self-advocates within the community you live or work in. Listen to what they have to say about their experience of disability and the words they use to describe it.
The final word rests with the people affected by our language choices.
In its guide, PWDA writes that people with disability often have very strong preferences for either identity-first, or person-first language.
'Non-disabled people need to be led by, respect and affirm each individual person with disability’s choice of language they use about themselves.'
Tanya Hollis is a copywriter specialising in careful content for services that are serious about access and inclusion. Based on Wathaurong country on Victoria's Surf Coast, Tanya is a white, non-disabled Australian woman constantly learning to be a respectful and effective ally and contribute to a more just and fair society.