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.

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

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.

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. Once you have that knowledge, consciously use it going forward.

Group communications

Because you are addressing a group and not an individual, you can’t know who prefers “person with autism” and would be offended by being called “autistic” and who believes the exact opposite. Under these conditions, I typically use PFL, recognizing that you can’t make all the people happy all the time. There will always be people who don’t like the choice you made, and they will make their opinions known. I am in the middle of finishing a book on considerations for starting and running accessibility programs. I hope my audience will be vast, but I most assuredly will not know my readers' language preferences, even if my readership is small. The very first page of my book discusses why I made the language choices I did.

Things that are written

For things that are written with a smaller audience (including emails, decks, and documentation), I recommend two steps:

  1. Personalization.

Why inclusive language?

When you use terminology that people object to, it instantly creates a barrier. Whenever I see the phrase “wheelchair-bound,” for example, I freeze up, and it’s almost impossible for me to absorb anything in the message after that point. It’s also challenging to regain my trust. It’s a gut-level emotional reaction that I will never be able to train myself out of. To me, the phrase is incredibly insensitive, bordering on the offensive, despite being commonplace in regions that still follow the charitable or medical models of disability. It is occasionally a normal part of others' vocabulary because they’ve never been told it is not inclusive.

Why personalization?

  1. Allow people to specify at the top of the document or in an HTML page whether they prefer the term “autistic,” “neurodiverse,” “person with Asperger’s,” etc.
  2. Then display the HTML page (or bring up a particular version of the document) personalized with the language they selected.
  3. Then you are unlikely to experience objections to the language choices because you are using the language the reader requested.

Language choice when there are conflicts

Sometimes you will be speaking with a group, and some people will be comfortable with identity first language, and others will be more comfortable with people first language. How do you decide who to make happy?

A mixed group of people both with and without disabilities

A classic example of where this occurred was the VMware disability employee resource group's naming process.

  • However, several wanted phrasing that did not put the word “disability” front and center — DifferentlyAbled @ VMware and SpeciallyAbled @ VMware were proposed.
  • The people who wanted names that only implied the disability were mostly not disabled. They were participating in the creation of the POD because they were allies.

Blogger, disability advocate, nerd. Bringing the fire on ableism. A11y Architect @ VMware. Wheelchair user w/ a deaf daughter. CS, Law, and Business background

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store