The way we talk about disability and people with disability can have a big impact on the way people with disabilities feel, the way they are treated and the way they are perceived as they go about their everyday lives.
Developing an awareness of the meaning behind the language we use when talking to, referring to, or working with people with disability is important to ensure everyone feels included. This inclusion is a big part of removing barriers, so people with disabilities can enjoy full participation in society.
Identity and disability
Throughout history, people who live with disabilities have been described in ways that are disempowering or patronising. For example, using the word ‘inspirational’ to describe a person in a wheelchair who is simply doing their groceries.
And negative words such as ‘victim’ or ‘sufferer’ reinforce stereotypes that people with disability should be viewed as objects of pity. However, you may have seen a shift in language over the past decade. Quite often, people will now say someone ‘lives with’ cerebral palsy when in the past it was common to hear ‘suffers’ from’ cerebral palsy.
This is changing, for the better, thanks to ongoing campaigns that centre the experience of people with disability, like We the 15.
Person-first language vs identity-first language
People with disabilities are people who have families, who work, who take their dog for a walk, who go to the pub, who get married, and participate in our communities in the same way as anyone without a disability does.
Person-first language supports the recognition of individual personality traits, interests, and roles in society, rather than viewing or referring to the disability a person experiences as the most important thing about them.
CPL – Choice, Passion Life, the disability support provider that runs Touchstone, primarily uses person-first language. However, this may change when the specific person being referred to identifies or describes themselves in a different way. So, if you see a Touchstone article or a Facebook post by CPL that talks about an ‘Autistic person,’ or a ‘disabled person,’ that language is how the individual person has chosen to identify themselves.
People with disability who choose to describe themselves in this style use identity-first language, as it is an important part of who they are and their identities. For the people who prefer to use identity-first language, it can be part of a broader movement towards and for Disability Pride.
“Disability Pride is about changing that perception. Switching up the narrative to embrace disability, what it means and how it impacts us.” - Madeleine Little, Undercover Artist Festival Director
As with all aspects of our personal identities, the easiest way to find out how to refer to a person is to ask them.
Social Model of Disability
Developed by people with disability, the Social Model of Disability is a way of viewing the world.
This model explains that people are not disabled by their disability, but by barriers in society. Physical barriers like a building without ramp access, and barriers created by other people, like assuming someone with a disability cannot do certain things for themselves.
The purpose of the social model is to make it easier to recognise barriers that make life harder for people with disabilities and remove them so that people with disability have more independence, choice, and control in their day-to-day lives.
What can you do?
Hold yourself, your friends and family members accountable and speak up when something is not right. Support the people with disability you know by calling out inappropriate language, and where possible, leaving space for people with disability to speak for themselves.
Be more conscious about the language you use, consider accessibility requirements when you plan social events, and simply, treat people with a disability as you would like to be treated.
Want to learn more?
The People with Disability Australia Language Guide is a great resource, developed by people with disabilities, for anyone wanting to understand more about inclusive language.