November 6, 2019

The Language of Disability

Jen Goulden | Project & Quality Manager
Document Accessibility Webinars

If you work in the field of accessibility you will inevitably find yourself needing to refer to various disabilities, or to the people who have them. Politically correct language is not new, yet there is still a lot of confusion as to which terms are acceptable and which are not. And as if this were not enough, there are a host of clichés and idiomatic expressions that make mention – usually with negative connotations – of people with disabilities. So how do you discuss things like assistive technology and accessible documents while navigating what might feel like a linguistic minefield?

To put this another way, which terms should you use when referring to someone who can’t see, or who can’t access conventional print because of a disability? You’ll often hear document accessibility experts refer to people as “blind or partially-sighted” – a distinction that is helpful because blindness is a continuum. Note that the term “low vision” is often used in the education sector. Dyslexia and other learning disabilities are usually included in the more general term “cognitive disabilities”. Although these terms are completely acceptable,  document accessibility is really about making information available to people who can’t access conventional print. A term that is becoming increasingly popular is “print disability”. One example is Australia’s governing body for braille, which is part of a larger organization known as the Round Table on Information Access for People with Print Disabilities. When registering for a service that involves accessible documents the requestor is often asked to provide “proof of a print disability”. This term is succinct and to the point. It covers any disability that might cause someone to require accessible documents and it keeps the focus on the issue of information access.

This being said, politically correct language isn’t just about knowing the right words. Here are a few other things to keep in mind. People generally do not like to be defined by something that they’re not, (such as non-sighted). It’s also better to avoid terms like “impaired” or “challenged”. Some people are comfortable with “impairment” but others feel that it implies damage or even drunkenness. Calling someone “visually challenged” can make blindness sound like a triathalon and “differently-abled” just seems patronizing. Disability may seem too negative but it is the term used in legal definitions. Overall, though, most people don’t want you to panic about which words you’ll use or not use when you’re talking to them. Blind people (yes, we do refer to ourselves as blind) use words like “see” and “look” all of the time without giving them a second thought. The same is true for clichés and idiomatic expressions. While some in the blind community deliberately avoid expressions that are not complementary to blindness we also recognize that they are part of the language and are generally not meant to be taken literally.

Just to confuse things a little more, there is the issue of person-first language. The idea behind this is that people shouldn’t be defined by their disabilities. This is true, but it doesn’t always reflect the reality of how people with disabilities refer to themselves. While members of the disability community may have differing views on terminology, one thing we have in common is that we all want to be treated with dignity and respect. So if you have questions about what kind of language to use, ask someone who actually has the disability when possible. They can’t necessarily speak for the community as a whole, but they are certainly in the best position to tell you what it is like to be on the receiving end of disability language – politically correct or otherwise.