Ground rules of inclusive language
People engaging with persons with disabilities often feel insecure what language to use. It’s good to be cautious because insensitive language can be offensive, contribute to stigma and impact the free and unbiased exchange. However, it would be sad if we avoid topics around disability or ignore a person with disabilities because we don’t know what to say. Therefore, let’s gather some knowledge on inclusive language! Kindly also check the chapter on disability-sensitive interaction for more remarks.
Benefits of inclusive language
- Inclusive language includes and recognises the dignity and rights of every person, regardless of background.
- Inclusive language makes sure not to perpetuate and exacerbate stereotypes and discriminatory perceptions, such as gender stereotypes.
- Inclusive language can contribute to reducing colonial and racist attitudes. It increases (self-)awareness and encourages societal discourse about existing inequalities. This is also true for development cooperation and humanitarian assistance contexts.
As inclusive language goes beyond disability-sensitive language, we will also give some examples that are outside this narrow scope. But before heading to them, we want to establish some ground rules you can always turn back to:
- Don’t overemphasize the fact that a person has a disability. Having a disability surely has an impact on people’s life. However, it is never the only characteristic determining who a person is. Other characteristics like age, gender, cultural, ethnic, or geographic background, interests and preferences etc. can play an even more important role, according to the context.
- Don’t be shy to use the word ‘disability’, ‘impairment’ or ‘blind’ etc. These are not words we shouldn’t say out loud. On the contrary! Disability is part of the diversity in our society and we should name this. If you feel insecure about the correct terminology, check the table below.
- Assistive devices are essential! They enable participation and inclusion of persons with disabilities in society. Sensationalist metaphors like being ‘bound to a wheelchair’ (unless it’s true - then kindly untie the person) misrepresent reality and should not be used.
- Don’t use the terminology ‘normal person’ (whatever that means). A person with a disability is as normal as anybody else. And neither statements like “She can’t run like a normal person” nor “He can speak like a normal person” are helpful at all.
- It is presumptuous to automatically link disability with suffering. Whether or not a person suffers is very individual. Overemphasizing their disability victimises the person and implicitly calls for treating the person differently, e.g., with unwanted attention, pity and care. Avoid statements like “She is living her life in absolute darkness”, “He is wheelchair bound” or “She is trapped in the vicious cycle of disability and poverty".
- On the contrary, mentioning the fact that a person has a disability with the aim to satisfy sensationalism or creating a narrative of heroism is just as inappropriate. For example, persons achieving things “despite of” their disability (“He has suffered from being deaf since his childhood, yet he masters his life cheerfully and with bravery).
- Try to use gender neutral language as often as possible. For instance, by referring to a person by their role rather than their gender.
Is it okay to say “See you later” to a blind person?
When talking about inclusive language, you need to make sure to find the right balance between being sensitive towards the other person and avoiding the feeling of different treatment. Our language knows many expressions around “seeing” like “see you later”, “nice to see you”, “I can see this happening” etc. Most of them are figures of speech and are often used by blind persons as well. Don’t feel guilty when you use them while speaking with persons with visual impairments. However, why not vary a bit in your language and find suitable alternatives when possible. When in a direct conversation with a person with visual impairments, try to make sure not to be rude by saying anything like “it is obvious, don’t you see that” when talking about something that is visible. The same applies to “you must be insane” or “you must have been crazy to do this” when engaging with a person with psychosocial or intellectual disability. Always be aware of the context.