Content Design London

Disability and inclusive language

Published 5 May 2021, by Alex White in Content Design.

The following guest blog post is written by Alex White. Alex works for the disability equality charity Scope. The charity worked with Content Design London on the readability guidelines around disability.

The first thing to say is that the language of disability changes.

The second is that if you are writing about disability and are not talking to disabled people, you need to rethink your approach.

Talk to disabled people. Test your content.

Offensive terms

Poster announcing why The Spastics Society changed its name.

In 1994, our charity was The Spastics Society.

‘Spastic cerebral palsy’ is a medical description of a type of cerebral palsy.

But ‘spastic’ had become a term of playground abuse.

Our name had become a barrier to the very people we were trying to reach.

It cost us money and name recognition to change our name to Scope but it was the right thing to do.

Using inclusive language will help you connect with your audience too.

Social model of disability

There are 2 main disability language models:

  • people first, used more in American English
  • the social model of disability, used by Scope

The ‘people first’ model says that we are people first. We can all agree with that.

We will talk about “people with cerebral palsy”.

And we are respectful of people’s language choices.

But Scope does not say “people with disabilities”. Why? Because we believe in the social model of disability.

‘I have a disability’ implies that it’s the disabled person’s fault.

‘I am disabled’ says that disability is society’s fault.

For example, we have the ability to understand your content but sometimes we are disabled by it.

I cannot understand

Because you have written content that is confusing or unclear.

I cannot read this

Because you have used a font that is hard to read.

I cannot access this

Because your content is in an inaccessible format.

Design decisions disable people.

We do not tell other people off for saying ‘I have a disability’ but we try to use social model language.

So we say ‘I have CP or [name of impairment]’’ or ‘I am disabled’.

But the secret to getting the language of disability right is to ask the disabled person!

Political correctness

Ask someone how they describe themselves. This is not political correctness; this is being polite and, well, correct.

If you ask me what to call me, I will say Alex.

If you call me ‘Al’ or ‘Alexander’, I’m less receptive to what you have to say. I either think you’re being a bit too informal or you are telling me off!

If you talk about a ‘disabled toilet’, does this mean the toilet is out of order or is it an accessible toilet?

If you say ‘wheelchair-bound swimmer’, think about it.

The swimmer uses a wheelchair to get to the pool but usually gets out of the chair to go for a swim!

Avoid words that portray disabled people as passive, such as ‘victim’ or ‘sufferer’.

Not yet disabled

Sometimes people ask, “What do we call people who are not disabled?”

The straight answer is ‘non-disabled’. But the more thought-provoking is ‘not yet disabled’.

During our lives, many of us will become disabled. If you are inclusive now, you are designing for your future self.

In my twenties, I thought Arial 12 point was a bit big. But now I prefer 14 point.

Inclusive design is good for everyone.

Plain English is good for the busy professional and for the person who has dyslexia.

Step-free access is good for the parent with a pushchair and the wheelchair user.

But I need guidelines!

Scope used to produce a bookmark of do’s and don’ts of what to say.

People asked for this because they do not want to use offensive terms.

But it turned us into the language police.

And it made people awkward around disability and disabled people.

The best way to break down the language barrier is to ask disabled people.

For example, social model language prefers to say people have ‘a condition or impairment’ rather than ‘have a disability’.

But our user testing showed that some people do not identify with the word ‘impairment’.

So we’ll talk about ‘disability’ or ‘being disabled’ too.

If you are writing about disability and are not talking to disabled people, you need to rethink your approach.

The mantra is “Nothing about us without us.”

But if you still need a bookmark, bookmark the Readability language guidelines.


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