Words matter, and they can hurt. Here are some ways to make your language more inclusive of disabled people.
Last week I went to a brilliant talk hosted by Content Design London and run by Alicija Johnston on making your content more gender inclusive. It had some great tips, and you can read the associated blog post, by Dana Rock, on the Content Design London website:
It’s brilliant that these discussions are happening, and it got me thinking about things that people do with their content that’s not very inclusive to disabled people.
Great minds think alike
I was just about to publish this yesterday when I saw that Content Design London had had much the same thought, and published a brilliant guest blog on the subject by Alex White of Scope.
I promise this was written beforehand – I’m not metaphorically copying anyone’s homework – but more voices talking about this can’t be a bad thing, so I humbly submit my own thoughts on making your content more inclusive of disabled people.
Alt text and all that jazz
I’m not talking about the many and varied accessibility issues to how you present your content: alt text, colour contrasts, subtitles, and so on (and on, and on. If I’ve lost you already, get in touch – I offer training). I’m not even talking about the equally important issue of writing in a clear, simple way.
I’m talking about the actual words people use when they’re talking to and about disabled people, which – often quite accidentally – contribute to the persistence of stereotypes around disability.
So here are five quick tips to make your content more inclusive (which basically means kinder) to disabled people.
1. No-one has been tied to their wheelchair
Please avoid the terms ‘wheelchair bound’, ‘confined to a wheelchair’ or ‘person in a wheelchair’.
For one thing, people get out of wheelchairs a lot. A huge percentage of wheelchair users are ambulatory users, meaning they can walk a little, and even people who do rely on one all the time mostly leave their chairs to wash, dress, pee, sleep: all the universal human experiences.
I recently came across the concept of being ‘wheelchair-enabled’ and I love that. I’ve been very enabled by a wheelchair in the past, and now by my mobility scooter. I named it Kyniska after the first woman to have won the Olympics, through training horses for charioteering. It’s a liberator, not an oppressor. It’s what means I can walk my daughter to school, nip to the High Street and get vegetables, and plan a day out where I get to actually join in.
I wouldn’t recommend using that term when talking about someone else though. It could easily come across as patronising.
The correct term is wheelchair user. If the fact that someone uses a wheelchair is relevant to what you have to say, call them a wheelchair user. If it’s not, don’t refer to it at all. Call them a scientist, a mother, a protestor, a politician, a sunbather, a CEO, a drag queen – any of the myriad of other aspects to the identity of someone who doesn’t walk so well (or at all).
Gabe Moses has written a brilliant piece on The Body is Not an Apology on how language like this can reduce a human being who uses a chair to simply being ‘a wheelchair’.
2. Beware of idioms
This next one is more nuanced. Use of metaphors and pop culture sayings can be very confusing and alienating for autistic people, people with learning difficulties, people who aren’t native English speakers, and many others.
One that always gets me, for example, is ‘waiting for the other shoe to drop’. I remember having to look up what it meant and I still don’t instinctively understand it.
Using a phrase someone has to translate – even quickly in their own head – pushes unnecessary cognitive load onto the user.
I’m not saying to never use a creative turn of phrase or a metaphor. It does depend on the aim, and the tone, of your content. Never use them in crucial information, but the occasional one in a chatty blog should be fine. I use metaphor in my opening gambit here, but I’ve flagged it as such. I’ve also used a heading below that vaguely invokes a pop song. Just make sure you’re putting thought into how and when you use sayings and idioms.
3. Don’t call me crazy
This is one I struggle with myself. I’m trying to purge my spoken language of terms that are ableist towards people with mental health issues.
There are lots of common words and phrases that, at their heart, are mocking or misrepresenting mental illness. Words like ‘crazy’, ‘mental’, ‘idiot’ or ‘insane’, or declaring that someone ‘needs to be locked up’.
Of course people mostly don’t mean to be unkind. Despite my best efforts, I still refer to things as ‘crazy’ a lot, and that’s not the context in which I mean it. I’ve unknowingly used lots of offensive terms in my life with no malicious intent. But that doesn’t stop them from having hurtful outcomes, and I’m not the one who gets to decide whether it’s hurtful. As Maya Angelou so beautifully put it: “When you know better, do better”.
So please avoid using any health condition as comedy material, or using terms that have been applied to mentally ill people as conversational hyberbole.
What can I say?
Some great alternatives are:
It all depends on your context, of course. Please do comment if you have your own suggestions!
This great article by Sara Nović for BBC Workplace goes into more detail about these linguistic micro-aggressions.
4. Never assume
A key tenet of creating accessible experiences is to never make assumptions about how people are interacting with your design. One of the many, many reasons that a link should never just read ‘Click here’ is that the person might not necessarily be clicking.
This holds true for a variety of phrases:
- ‘As you can see above…’ is not useful when there will definitely be people who can’t see the thing you’re referring to. (2-3% of people in the UK live with vision loss, and these people also live with the internet.) It’s better to say something like ‘The photograph above shows…’
- ‘As you remember…’ is upsetting or confusing for someone who doesn’t. Try ‘As you might remember…’, if you need to refer to this at all.
- ‘As you heard…’ is not useful for the people who can’t hear. ‘As the speaker said in the video…’ is better.
5. Employ disabled people
Things do change in terms of what language people prefer. Years ago it was ok to refer to someone as handicapped, and the charity now called Scope was registered using a deeply offensive term.
The best way to stay connected to the disabled community is to talk to us – directly. Be careful if you’re talking to a charity or advocacy organisation. Some are run by disabled people themselves, and help to provide community. Others work on the tragedy model of disability in which they generously deign to help poor disadvantaged folk. Speak to people directly: ‘Nothing about us without us’.
And the best way to stay connected to disabled folk is to work with them. Employ disabled people as whole humans to be a meaningful part of your organisation, and it will be richer for it.
Comment or get in touch
If you’re interested in knowing more about all this, or helping to educate your organisation, get in touch.
Wise words from others
Find the people I talk about here online: