Annex: Inclusive language considerations
Annex: Inclusive language considerations
On this page
- Negative terms related to the characteristics of disability
- Negative terms related to the experience of disability
- Stereotypical themes of disability
- Slurs and insults
- Competing views on person-first language
Every step of your consultation process should respect and uphold the dignity of persons with disabilities. It is especially important when it comes to the language you use.
As a rule, always use language that is gender-neutral and culturally sensitive. There are also language considerations to keep in mind when you talk about disability and accessibility.
Be aware that the words you use can be very powerful: they can both help and hurt. Some words can make people feel welcome, included, and respected. Other words can make people feel angry, ignored, or hurt.
Below are some things to avoid when you choose your words. Keep in mind that language evolves over time. New terms and descriptions may come into use, and existing terms and descriptions may fall out of favour. While this is not an exhaustive list, it should serve as a reminder that language is important.
Ableism is a view or attitude that treats people without disabilities as “normal” and those with disabilities as “abnormal,” “inferior,” or “other.” Ableism can be both intentional and unintentional.
Intentional ableism might involve things like:
- bullying and ridicule (such as the use of slurs or insults)
- using a person’s disability to take advantage or cause harm (such as by putting items in inaccessible places)
- treating a person with a disability as if they are incapable or unintelligent
Unintentional ableism can be just as harmful. It might involve things like:
- creating documents or other materials that look nice but are inaccessible to persons with seeing disabilities
- planning events where some persons with disabilities cannot participate comfortably or safely
- using words or phrases without thinking about how they can affect persons with disabilities
When you consult persons with disabilities, consider how both intentional and unintentional ableism may be involved in your ideas, plans, and actions. Keep this in mind throughout all of your efforts to identify, remove, and prevent barriers.
Negative terms related to the characteristics of disability
Ableism is not always intentional, but it can still be harmful. Many common words and phrases may be offensive to persons with disabilities. They may also be misleading or confusing.
Here are some examples of ableist, negative words and possible alternatives:
- “their response was crippled by…”:
- alternatives: slowed, delayed, disrupted
- “we were blind to that…”:
- alternatives: not aware of, surprised by, did not account for
- “that was tone-deaf…”:
- alternatives: thoughtless, careless, ignorant
- “that’s crazy…”
- alternatives: different, unexpected, unique
- “that’s so lame…”:
- alternatives: boring, uninteresting, unpopular
Negative terms related to the experience of disability
You can also find ableism in the words used to explain how people experience disability. For example, a phrase like “falling on deaf ears” could be offensive to persons with hearing disabilities even if you intend no harm. Negative language is very common.
Consider these examples of ableist, negative language and alternatives:
- “they suffered from blindness…”:
- alternative: “they have a visual disability”
- “he was afflicted with deafness…”:
- alternative: “he is a Deaf person”
- “she was confined to a wheelchair / was wheelchair-bound…”:
- alternative: “she is a wheelchair user / uses a wheelchair”
Stereotypical themes of disability
Ableism can also affect the kind of stories people tell or expect to be told about the lives of persons with disabilities. These stories can have themes based on assumptions about disability. They often treat persons with disabilities as “characters” rather than people. Even in real life, the stories we encounter can affect how we think of people and how we treat them.
For example, some stories show persons with disabilities as victims or patients. Persons without disabilities in these stories are often shown as saviours or caretakers.
Other stories show persons with disabilities as heroes or inspirations, even for doing “ordinary” things that some persons without disabilities may assume they could not. They may show persons without disabilities benefiting from the brave or determined example set by the person with a disability.
While some persons with disabilities may see themselves in similar roles, this is not true for all. Persons with disabilities see the same variety of themes and stories in their lives as everyone else. They own their own stories. It is important to be respectful when a person with a disability chooses to share that story with you.
Keep these ideas in mind too as you choose illustrations, graphics, or other images to include in your consultation materials or other publications. Images that include persons with disabilities should show them participating equally in events and activities. Make sure images that include persons who use assistive devices are modern and up-to-date, as these devices change significantly over time.
Slurs and insults
Do not use words or insulting terms that are known to cause harm. Some persons with disabilities might sometimes use such terms as a way to reclaim them, or to describe their own experiences. Your consultations should not introduce such language, and you should set clear standards for courtesy and respect.
Competing views on person-first language
These guidance modules use “person-first” language when describing persons with disabilities. We use it to emphasize the person rather than the disability. For example, instead of saying “disabled persons,” we say “persons with disabilities.”
Person-first language may also involve using a phrase like “a person with a mobility disability” instead of “an immobilized person.” Another example would be saying “a person with low vision” rather than a “low-vision person.” This kind of phrasing avoids identifying a person with any disability they might have. A person with a disability may have different views of its meaning or significance in their lives.
At the same time, not all persons with disabilities prefer person-first language. You may notice that some individuals, experts, and organizations do not talk about disability the same way we do in these modules. Some might think person-first language places too little emphasis on disabilities that are important parts of their lives. Others might find person-first language involves too much awkward grammar and phrasing.
While Government of Canada publications use person-first language by convention, we recommend that you follow the lead of persons with disabilities that you meet. If they prefer a certain vocabulary, you may wish to use those words as well.
You may choose to prioritize the use of person-first language in your accessibility plans, progress reports, and feedback process descriptions. Nevertheless, when you provide information about your consultations and about feedback, you may choose to describe any requests of this nature you have received.
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