Disability / Accessibility Language Choices

There is global and personal variation on what is considered acceptable and preferable. This is how I decide what language to use.

Sheri Byrne-Haber, CPACC
5 min readFeb 2, 2021


Street signs in several different foreign languages for a tavern, a pizza place, a castle and a hotel
Photo by Soner Eker on Unsplash

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In the first part of this three-part article, I talked about the four different sociological models of disability. To recap, we have:

  • The charitable model of disability
  • The medical model of disability
  • The social model of disability
  • The identity model of disability. This is my creation, I think. Don’t google it just yet.

Given that you may be code-switching between these models even within the same conversation, the $64,000 question is — what language to use when referring to someone’s disability?

Language choice factors

There are many language differences related to disability and a dizzying array of factors involved, including the speaker’s age and geography.

When someone requests that you use identity-first language, that request is valid for exactly one individual— the person asking it. You can’t assume that others who may be part of the conversation will be comfortable with the terms “autistic” or “disabled” just because that is what you or the individual you are communicating with desires.

Individual communications

My recommendation is parallel to pronoun choice: if it isn’t evident from the individual’s online presence what terminology they prefer:

  1. establish early in your relationship what language the individual desires to use about their disability.
  2. Once you have that knowledge, consciously use it going forward.



Sheri Byrne-Haber, CPACC

LinkedIn Top Voice for Social Impact 2022. UX Collective Author of the Year 2020. Disability Inclusion SME. Sr Staff Accessibility Architect @ VMware.