Language about disability – what is your level of awareness around terms affecting people with disability?

Our team at mCare Digital learned a lot about circumstances affecting people with disability. Being a registered NDIS provider and working with Occupational Therapists and Agencies assisting people with disability, we’ve gained an insight into the lives of those living with disability and also the language about disability.

The help of assistive technology is just one façade of the kind of help that’s making life actually possible. We often think about technology improving our lives but in the case of certain disabilities, technology actually makes living possible.

Most of us go through life without understanding much about the world of disability. Unless there is someone you know in your social circle or immediate family who has a disability or you work in the disability sector, it’s easy to be unaware of the challenges. One of the simplest things we could do is get acquainted with the language about disability in order to make individuals with disability feel inclusive and accepted.

Although we are not claiming to be experts or activists in this space, we are big believers in raising awareness so conversations about disability actually take place. Often people shy away from talking to individuals with disability just because they are too afraid from using the wrong terms or saying something inappropriate. This makes the divide even greater and makes people with disability feel misunderstood and isolated in regular social settings.

Language about disability by mCare Digital

We’ve done a bit of research into the language about disability

We found doing a bit of research and speaking to our industry partners who are actively engaged in this space really helped us navigate these interactions. We’d like to invite you to join us on this path of raising awareness for the language about disability.

A natural human desire is to be accepted for who we are regardless of our abilities. We crave psychological safety – an environment where we are fully seen, heard and accepted for our authentic selves. In some instances, this means accepted and respected for who we are because of our disability, rather than despite of it.

Many disabilities are visible, especially if they include the usage of equipment such as a wheelchair, crutches or hearing aids. But many are actually invisible and often undetectable unless the person with disability feels comfortable enough to share this information. You might be surprised to learn that one in five Australians today has some form of a disability. This represents 20% of the population.

Disability is broadly defined as an impairment in body function or structure, an activity limitation (the tasks a person does), or restricted participation (the involvement of a person in life situations). This is primarily based on concepts from the World Health Organisation’s (WHO), International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF). A disability may be permanent or temporary. It may be present at birth, acquired in an accident or develop with age. It may also have a moderate or significant impact on a person’s life.

The Disability Discrimination Act (1992), covers a wide breadth of disabilities including intellectual, physical, mental illness, sensory, neurological, learning disability and more.

Our intention with this article is to raise awareness around the language about disability that could assist you to show up from a place of kindness, courtesy and respect when meeting someone with a disability. It’s not just the language you use but also how you behave towards individuals with disability that makes a huge difference. These things are subtle but often missed.

It’s not unusual to see certain situations taken out of context just because someone was trying to be understanding and courteous but instead ended up offending the individual with disability just out of sheer lack of awareness.

People with disability are just like you and I – human first and foremost. We are all trying to do our best and fit into a society that can often be cruel and demanding. Although cities, especially in the western world, are becoming more and more inclusive with the ways they design buildings, public spaces and public transport, we still have a long way to go to be fully inclusive across all aspects of life, including workplaces and communities.

The English language has adapted to some of the terms when speaking about disability however there are still certain cultural differences even in this space, such as using the term ‘handicapped’ is still ok in the US but a big no-no in the UK and Australia, for example.

We have compiled a few guidelines around language and certain behaviours that are commonly exercised in Australia and the UK.

Disability in mature age

Overall terms and expressions

→ Use ‘people first’ language. When talking to and about individuals with disability, it is important to use language that reflects dignity and respect. People with disability are people first, just like everyone else. Therefore, it is always best to address them by their names.

→ The word ‘disabled’ is a description not a group of people. Use ‘disabled people’ not ‘the disabled’ as the collective term.

→ However, many deaf people whose first language is BSL consider themselves part of ‘the deaf community’ – they may describe themselves as ‘Deaf’, with a capital D, to emphasise their deaf identity.

→ Avoid medical labels. They say little about people as individuals and tend to reinforce stereotypes of disabled people as ‘patients’ or unwell.

→ Don’t automatically refer to ‘disabled people’ in all communications – many people who need disability benefits and services don’t identify with this term. Consider using ‘people with health conditions or impairments’ if it seems more appropriate.

Positive or negative connotations

→ Avoid phrases like ‘suffers from’ which suggest discomfort, constant pain and a sense of hopelessness.

→ Wheelchair users may not view themselves as ‘confined to’ a wheelchair – try thinking of it as a mobility aid instead.

→ People with disability are often described in ways that are discriminatory, disempowering or offensive. Some expressions reinforce the perception of inequality and that people with disability are unhappy about their lives, wish they were ‘normal’ and should be viewed as objects of pity.

→ These harmful stereotypes are simply not true. People with disabilities are people first who have families, jobs, interests, hobbies and belong to communities. The least we can do is approach them just like anyone else and learn to navigate their world with language about disability that shows we care and respect everyone around us regardless of their circumstances.

Adjusting your behaviour

→ When speaking to a person with disability, use a regular tone of voice. Don’t be patronising or showing pity.

→ Refrain from asking about their disability and how they’ve acquired it

→ Don’t be too sensitive or politically correct; try having a regular conversation just like you would with a friend.

We hope you found this article useful and that it has enriched your language about disability. Let us know if you’ve got any other tips for our readers in the comment section below.

If you are caring for someone with disability who could benefit from using our technology, we’ve had great success supporting the young and mature citizens in our society with the mCareWatch. You can check out our case study here or watch this News bulletin that featured the mCareWatch on Channel 10. If you’ve got any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us on 1300 188 557