Why is language important in disability and neurodiversity?

Last updated: 31 Jan 2024

The language we use can reinforce negative stereotypes, or it can challenge them. We may sometimes, however inadvertently and unintentionally, cause offence and reinforce stereotypes, which perpetuates discrimination.

Most of the British disability movement, and the TUC, uses the term ‘disabled people’ in line with the social model (see below). In the United States, the term ‘people with disabilities’ is more common and some British (and many Irish) disabled people follow this American usage. The TUC does not regard ‘people with disabilities’ as offensive.

Definitions that use the social model of disability, rather than the medical model, are acceptable. This means that it is society’s physical, sensory, attitudinal, legal and behavioural barriers that disable people and not their particular medical condition or impairment. It is important not to define people by their impairments.

Suggestions on use of language

Try to avoid: By using:
Try to avoid:The disabled By using:Disabled people
Try to avoid:The blind / the deaf By using:Blind person / deaf person
Try to avoid:Mentally handicapped / retarded By using:Person with learning difficulties
Try to avoid:Neurological condition / disorder By using:Neurological difference / Neurodiverse
Try to avoid:Wheelchair-bound By using:Wheelchair user

Trades unionists should know that words such as ‘retarded’, ‘defective’ and ‘handicapped’ are unacceptable. These words encourage people to think less of their fellow workers and some of them convey contempt or even hate.

Words and phrases that present people as victims or pitiable reinforce negative assumptions. It is not good to refer to autistic people as ‘suffering’ from autism.

Phrases like ‘differently abled’ and ‘physically challenged’ can be patronising or sarcastic, not egalitarian, and not recommended by the British disability movement.

Trades unionists should aim for a natural and relaxed style of speaking and writing that avoids giving unnecessary offence.

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