This post was written by Naomi Malone.

What is inclusive language?

Inclusive language is language that does not reflect prejudices, stereotypes or discriminatory views of particular people or groups. Sometimes called non-discriminatory language, it avoids false assumptions and assists in promoting respectful relationships.

Why is inclusive language important?

Inclusive language is important because it contributes positively towards developing a modern, diverse and inclusive society. It can create a sense of empowerment, pride, identity, purpose and dignity. Language that is not inclusive can cause people to be hurt, demeaned or offended.

What are some things to keep in mind when communicating about accessibility?

When communicating about accessibility, never ask anyone what his or her impairment or disability is; instead, focus on the access requirements of that person. Access requirements are solutions designed to address physical and communicative barriers experienced by people with disabilities when trying to be included in the community, whether at, but not limited to, school, university or the workplace.

Access requirements for people with disabilities are many and varied. For example – for people who are blind or have low vision, audio descriptions, Braille, large print and accessible software like Zoomtext are required; for people who are Deaf, deaf (more information on the difference between uppercase and lowercase spellings of deaf here), hard of hearing or hearing impaired, Auslan and captioning are required; people who use wheelchairs require ramps, lifts and continuous accessible paths of travel that provide dignified and independent access; and for people with intellectual disabilities, documents need to be in Easy Read version.

How do I refer to someone with a disability?

Language do’s and don’t’s

  • Do talk about the person first. In other words, focus on the person, not the impairment. In Australia, best-practice language is to use ‘person with disability’ or ‘people with disability’. Person-first language is the most widely accepted terminology in Australia. Examples of person-first language include: ‘person who is deaf’, or ‘people who have low vision’. Put the person first, and the impairment second (when it’s relevant). Other phrases that are growing in popularity and acceptance are: ‘person living with disability’, and ‘person with lived experience of disability’. These are inclusive of people who may have experienced disability in the past, but don’t any longer, and also people who are carers.
  • Don’t use words like ‘the handicapped’, ‘victim’, ‘crippled’, ‘retard’, ‘invalid’, ‘wheelchair-bound’, ‘retarded’.
  • Don’t use words that imply that people with disability are overly courageous, brave, special or superhuman.

Tips on communication

  • Treat people with disability as individuals, offering the same respect you would anyone else. Be polite and patient.
  • Ask how you can help. Don’t assume help is needed.
  • Don’t let your unease about saying or doing the wrong thing lead to avoiding people with disability.
  • Always look and speak directly to a person with disability, not the companion or aide.
  • Try to relax and see the lighter side. If you feel that you’ve embarrassed someone, apologise but don’t dwell on it or avoid the situation.
  • Refer to a person’s disability only when necessary and appropriate.
  • Shake hands even if the person has limited hand use. A left hand shake is acceptable.
  • Don’t patronise or talk down. Treat adults as adults.

Where can I go to get more information?

For more information, visit the Australian Network on Disability’s Inclusive Language guide, or the Inclusive Language Guidelines by the Department of Education, Tasmania. For more information on making learning and teaching accessible, check out our Accessibility guide on LX Resources.

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