We all know that language changes over time. Every year, new words are added to English dictionaries – think about words like ‘proactive’, which didn’t exist 20 years ago, or ‘facepalm’ an addition to our official lexicon in 2018.
Historically, language has left many people out. It has traditionally highlighted disability and led to terms like ‘handicapped’, ‘the blind’ and ‘the disabled’. This trend has tended to emphasise the disability rather than the person, which can lead to derogatory labelling, depersonalisation or impersonal, collective references.
To mark International Day of people with Disability (Friday, Dec 3), LiveBig, an NDIS allied health provider, is highlighting the importance of inclusive language.
1 in 5 Australians have some form of disability
LiveBig CEO Marcella Romero says that 1 in 5 Australians have some form of disability, so it is incredibly important that as a society we are aware of how to use language that is inclusive. ‘Stereotyping of people with disability usually paints people with a disability as victims or suffering. The current correct term is to use the neutral phrase “people with disability” – putting the person first.
‘For example, the phrases “person with disability” or “musician with vision impairment” or “child with Autism” (or “on the spectrum”) and “person with epilepsy” are considered more inclusive and sensitive. Avoid unnecessary or gratuitous reference to the disability if it’s not relevant to the circumstances.’
Inclusivity is becoming increasingly important in the workplace. Recent research indicates that 84% of people think it is important for an organisation to promote diversity and inclusion for everyone, yet 62 per cent of Australians feel they can’t bring their true selves to work.
‘What we do know is that successfully supporting diversity and inclusion in the workplace can have a profoundly positive impact on company culture. Employees can be 9.8 times more likely to look forward to going to work, 6.3 times more likely to have pride in their work and 5.4 times more likely to want to remain with their employer for a long time,’ says Ms Romero.
What is inclusive language?
Instead of assuming everyone is all the same, inclusive language allows you actively embrace diversity and the intersection of identities, and to avoid assumptions that could harm relationships before they even start. Inclusive language shows sensitivity, respect and open-mindedness toward individuals and groups through positive, accurate, equitable representation.
Josie La Spina understands this all too well. Having cared for both her parents and sister living with disability, she is now living with disability herself after a spinal operation. She says that inclusive language seeks to treat all people with respect, dignity, and impartiality.
‘Language is constructed to bring everyone into the group and exclude no one. If we stereotype someone, we assume a range of things about them based on one or two of their personal characteristics – like their appearance, intelligence, personality, disability or their gender. Using appropriate, inclusive language sees us all as individual people and not just products of stereotypes.’
LiveBig’s tips for inclusive language
- Avoid using the term ‘special’ when referring to people with disability – they don’t have ‘special needs’, they are not ‘special’, they don’t require ‘special handling’
- Toilets are not ‘disabled’ – they are better referred to as ‘universal access toilets’
- Avoid undue emphasis on racial/ethnic ‘differences’, e.g. only refer to someone’s racial background if it’s relevant
- Avoid references to a person’s gender except where it is pertinent to the discussion – this usually involves using gender-neutral terms like ‘humanity’ or ‘people’ instead of ‘mankind’, ‘workforce’ or ‘labour’ instead of ‘manpower’ and ‘the chair’ or ‘the chairperson’ instead of ‘the chairman’
- Avoid stereotyping, e.g. making positive or negative generalisations about members of a particular racial/ethnic or national group in ways that detract from people’s fundamental humanity and individuality
- Avoid using derogatory labelling, offensive humour and ethnic and racial slurs, e.g. terms whose main function is to set aside some groups from an implied mainstream by suggesting a ‘them and us’ mentality
- Use terms that are inclusive such as ‘first name’ and ‘family name’, rather than ‘Christian name’ and ‘surname’
- Avoid referring to people by their migration status, such as ‘former refugee’, ‘humanitarian entrant’ or ‘new arrival’, etc. Some people prefer not to be identified through origin or descent at all.
- Don’t say ‘honey/darling/dear’, instead use the employee’s name; don’t say ‘spokesman’, instead use ‘spokesperson’.