How to Talk about Disability and Difference

As you may have noticed, terminology that is considered respectful changes frequently. Today we want to share a style guide made by the National Center on Disability and Journalism at Arizona State University. You can check out the whole document here, but since it's long, we've provided the highlights for you below.

Basic Principles: 

  • Use people-first language. This means that you describe people as people first, and then as possessors of various characteristics, including disability and difference. For example, you would say, "Erin is a person with vision impairment who uses assistive technology," rather than, "Erin is a vision-impaired person who uses assistive technology." 
  • Ask people what they would like to be called and how they would like to be described. Don't make assumptions and avoid "diagnosing" others. Remember that others have a right to keep their differences to themselves, whether or not you believe you can observe their difference.
  • Avoid referring to difference unless doing so is important to your communication. Don't identify others by their difference.

You can read the style guide's recommendations for referring to various forms of difference here. Below we've gathered some of the suggestions you may find most useful:

  • Instead of normal and abnormal, use "typical" and "atypical". Even better, describe the specific context of a person's difference in detail.
  • Instead of calling someone an addict, describe them as a "person with a substance abuse disorder." Don't make assumptions about another's potential addiction, and remember that a person's status as a member of Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous should be kept confidential. If you meet someone in this context, you should refrain from revealing their membership unless you have their permission to do so.
  • Ask people with autism/autism spectrum disorders how they describe their own experience, instead of making an assumption about how to describe them. Some people object to the word "autism" being used as an adjective, so clarify before you assume.
  • Don't use words that describe disability as metaphors. For instance, it might be hurtful to someone with limited vision to read the word "blind" used to as a metaphor to describe a person's inability to understand something.

And finally, don't be afraid to ask questions and to apologize when you mess up! We all make mistakes! If someone is offended by your language, apologize sincerely, and ask them nicely to explain how you could do better.

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