Disability / Accessibility Language Choices

Street signs in several different foreign languages for a tavern, a pizza place, a castle and a hotel
There is global and personal variation on what is considered acceptable and preferable. This is how I decide what language to use.

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.

Until you know with certainty (say from a meeting invite or an introductory email) that the person uses an identity model of disability, use People First Language (or PFL). Then immediately ask, “Is there language you would prefer me to use instead?”

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. Inclusive language review, and;
  2. Personalization.

I acknowledge these approaches create more work, but it will result in a product that will make everyone happy.

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.

In the third part of this article, I identify a comprehensive list of phrases to be avoided to be disability-inclusive. Our disability ERG (which at VMware, we call a POD for Power Of Difference) has been busy putting together a comprehensive list of inclusive language to use (and phrases to avoid) for our code and documentation to be more aligned our EPIC2 inclusive mission.

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.

This approach does require a little bit more attention by the content development team to write sentences that work for the phrases being offered to the reader. That being said, the payoff is enormous because you are accounting for all language choices and being as inclusive as possible.

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.

  • One group of individuals (myself included) wanted the POD named Disability@Vmware to put the disability first and align with other VMware POD names, such as Black@VMware and Asian@VMware.
  • However, several wanted phrasing that did not put the word “disability” front and center — DifferentlyAbled @ VMware and SpeciallyAbled @ VMware were proposed.

When digging down into the reasoning behind each position, a pattern emerged:

  • All of the people who wanted “Disability@” were disabled.
  • 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.

Since the POD’s mission is to normalize disability, the consensus was hiding behind a phrase that didn’t include the word “disability,” which was the opposite of our group’s mission.

Disability@VMware became the name, and it remains so today, though I do find myself occasionally explaining why we consciously made that choice.

Takeaway #1 — if there is a language conflict, prioritize the desires of the people with disabilities over allies. Making people uncomfortable may be part of your mission. Embrace it.

Takeaway #2 — don’t dilute your mission, ever. If your mission is to promote the rights of people who are neurodiverse, for example, then use the phrases ‘autistic’ and ‘dyslexic’. Expect objections and be prepared to explain your position.

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