Disability History Month: Etiquette - language to consider and avoid

As part of our Disability History Month Campaign, Laura Tamara, Co-President has penned the following article to support the use of positive and respectful language when interacting with individuals who may have a disability or impairment.

Beds SU

By Beds SU

Wednesday, 24 November 2021

There are approximately 14.1 million people living in the UK with a disability, including 10% of our own student population identifying as having a disability or impairment. By being considerate we can ensure that all individuals are treated with courtesy, dignity and respect.

Disability vs. impairment

Distinction should be noted between an impairment and a disability, impairments are often caused by an accident, trauma, or genetic disorder. 

A disability is any condition of the body, including the mind which makes it more difficult to carry out activities and interact.

The diverse make-up of our human body is fundamental to how impairment or disability can affect us. The effects of an impairment or disability differs significantly for everyone, for this reason we should avoid making assumptions about what a person can or cannot do.

Be considerate of the language you use

Using appropriate language and keeping speech person-focused, encourages respect whilst reducing inequality. Titles such as handicapped, mentally challenged, physically challenged, disabled person, should no longer be used. It is always encouraged to avoid detrimental, humiliating, and old terminology such as ‘retard’, ‘dumb’, ‘hyper’ or ‘invalid’, as using inappropriate language can be damaging and hurtful. 

Instead, we can use language which empowers, for example a wheelchair or mobility-aid user, rather than wheelchair bound.

Tips to remember

  • Relax, speak normally and stand in front to allow eye contact to be made in the same way you would with anyone else.
  • Acknowledge and support the individual’s ability to make decisions and judgements on their own behalf.
  • Be aware that many people with disabilities can also feel patronised by terms such as ‘physically challenged’ or ‘differently abled’.
  • If you do use the incorrect term or phrase, promptly apologise and ask the person what their preferred terminology is and utilise them.
  • Steer clear of asking personal medical questions, instead ask what an individual’s access and/or communication needs may be.
  • Assistance should only be offered if it appears to be needed, it should be noted that it is wise to wait for the offer to be accepted. Helping before asking insinuates the person is incapable which can lead to annoyance.
  • Consider that a visually impaired person may not capture gestures or facial expressions.
  • Always treat an adult as an adult.
  • Talk to a person with a disability directly, rather than via a companion.
  • Avoid labelling people by their disability, an example of this could be, “He/She/X is a diabetic.” A more helpful alternative would be, “He/She/X has diabetes.”
  • When interacting with a wheelchair user avoid talking with them from behind, it may be uncomfortable and awkward for them to turn to you. Similarly, consider their personal space, allow plenty of room and refrain from touching/leaning on the wheelchair without permission.
  • Do try to ensure your face is visible and well-lit as those who need to lip-read will find it helpful.
  • Be patient and do not try to speak over someone, allow them to finish their own sentences.
  • Eliminate unconscious bias and consider shaking hands even when an individual appears to have limited use of their arms, and or an artificial limb. If shaking hands is not possible then smiling in addition to an appropriate salutation is likely to be well received.

Find out more

This article aims to give an overview on language and behaviour to use as well as be mindful of. There is a wealth of further guidance and support to delve into should you wish to learn more and below are just a few further reading recommendations:

Mencap's guide to communication

Government guide to inclusive language

RNID's guide to communicating with someone who is deaf/ has hearing