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Reading and Resources

Language & Communication

Words can have a very powerful effect. When talking to a person with disability, or having a conversation with someone in relation to disability, it is important to use appropriate language and terminology.

Use empowering language that focuses on the person first, rather than the disability or impairment, e.g. a person who uses a wheelchair, or a person who is hard of hearing.

'Person with disability', or 'people with disability' are the most commonly accepted terms used in Australia. This is known as 'person first' language, and is widely used throughout Australia and the United States.

If you are unsure of the correct words to use, don't be afraid to ask the person with disability. They will generally appreciate your openness and it may help to make them feel more comfortable. It is always easiest to describe people as they describe themselves and, if in doubt, ask.

Language tips:

  • The term 'blind' should only be used to describe someone who has no sight at all, otherwise say person with low vision (only a very small percentage of all people with vision impairments are actually blind);
  • The term 'deaf' should only be used to describe someone who has no hearing at all. Otherwise, use 'person with a hearing impairment' or 'person who is hard of hearing'.
  • When a capital 'D' is used for 'Deaf', this is to describe the Deaf community which uses Australian Sign Language (Auslan). The Deaf community is considered to be a cultural and linguistic minority group, similar to an ethnic community. As not all people who cannot hear identify with the Deaf community, the 'd' in 'deaf' is not capitalised when referring to all deaf people, or the physical condition of not hearing.
  • Saying 'disabled parking space' or 'disabled toilet' implies these things do not work! Use 'accessible parking space' and 'accessible toilet' instead.

Many people do not see themselves as having a disability at all, such as some people in the Deaf community who use Auslan as their first language, or those who have a long-term medical condition.

As well as being aware of the appropriate ways to communicate about issues relating to disability, it is also important to be aware of the best ways to support an employee with disability if they experience communication barriers as a result of their disability.

A few basic tips:

  • Never describe people solely by their impairments, e.g. 'an epileptic' or 'a diabetic' - instead say 'person who has epilepsy', or 'person with diabetes'
  • Avoid collective nouns such as 'the disabled' or 'the blind'; use 'people with disability', or 'people who are blind'
  • Avoid phrases with negative connotations such as 'wheelchair bound' or 'suffering from a disability', or words that demean people with disability such as 'unfit', 'abnormal' or 'defective'
  • Also try to avoid patronising language that implies people with disability are overly courageous, special, or superhuman just to get through the day with their disability; people with disability are just living their lives
  • It's OK to use common expressions such as 'See you later' with someone who is blind or has low vision, or 'I've got to run' to a person who uses a wheelchair
  • Always ask the person with disability if they'd like any help, before rushing in to assist them
  • Try to relax, and just focus on the person, rather than their disability — offer an apology if you feel you've said the wrong thing, but always be willing to communicate.