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  • Writer's pictureRegina Reinhardt

Inclusive Language

Reinhardt Coaching is an inclusive organisation applying UN Inclusive Language Guidelines.

Disability Inclusive Language Guidelines launched by UN Geneva Organisation.

These guidelines have been prepared by the United Nations Office at Geneva as part of efforts to implement the United Nations Disability Inclusion Strategy, launched in 2019.

The Strategy is a key framework for policy and action to mainstream disability inclusion at the United Nations. It is aimed at removing barriers and engaging persons with disabilities in all spheres of work and life in order to achieve sustainable and transformative progress on disability inclusion. Its indicator 15 on communication, in particular, requires that internal and external communications should be respectful of persons with disabilities.

This document contains recommendations that United Nations staff, experts and collaborators can use in their oral and written communications on disability or other subjects, including speeches and presentations, press releases, social media posts, internal communications and other formal and informal documents. It is based on an in-depth study of disability-inclusive language materials and a consultation process with a diverse range of experts, including persons with disabilities.

Words matter. Undeniably, the language that we use to refer to persons with disabilities has an impact, as it shapes our perception of the world. This language has evolved over time, and terms that were commonly used some years ago are no longer acceptable. It is therefore important to raise awareness about language that it is appropriate to use when talking to or about persons with disabilities. Inappropriate language can make people feel excluded or offend them and can be a barrier to full and meaningful participation. The use of derogatory or inappropriate language may amount to discrimination and impinge on the enjoyment of human rights. By adopting language that celebrates diversity, we will contribute to strengthening the human rights model of disability and to creating a more inclusive United Nations.

At the same time, inclusive language is a key tool in combating ableism and its entrenched manifestations. Ableism is a misguided and biased understanding of disability that leads to the assumption that the lives of persons with disabilities are not worth living. Ableism can take many forms, including harmful language.

In terms of language and terminology, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities sets the standard that we must all follow. The general comments issued by the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, together with other authoritative United Nations documents, also provide guidance to better understand the Convention and its language.

These practical guidelines aim to foster the consistent use of respectful language at the United Nations. They contain the general principles that should be applied, and are intended to be practical and easy to use. Annex I contains a table summarizing both the recommended terminology and the terms that are considered inappropriate. Annex II consists of a list of terms that require additional clarification from a language perspective in order to avoid common mistakes and to comply with United Nations terminology standa

1. Use people-first language

People-first language is the most widely accepted language for referring to persons with disabilities. It is also the language used in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. People-first language emphasizes the person, not the disability, by placing a reference to the person or group before the reference to the disability. For example, we can use expressions such as “children with albinism”, “students with dyslexia”, “women with intellectual disabilities” and, of course, “persons with disabilities”.

However, the people-first rule does not necessarily apply to all types of disabilities. There are some exceptions. For example, when referring to persons who are blind, we can say either “blind persons” or “persons who are blind”, and the same applies to deaf or deafblind persons.

If in doubt, you should ask the person or group how they choose to identify. Indeed, persons with disabilities are not a homogeneous group, and they may self-identify in various ways. These identities should be respected and recognized. However, as this rich diversity of identities may hinder efforts to establish unified terminology, these guidelines recommend terminology that is commonly used and accepted.

2. Avoid labels and stereotypes

Disability is a part of life and of human diversity, not something to be dramatized or sensationalized. Persons with disabilities should therefore not be portrayed as inspirational or “superhuman”. This language implies that it is unusual for persons with disabilities to be successful and productive and to live happy and fulfilling lives. Descriptions of persons with disabilities as “courageous” or “brave” or as having “overcome” their disability are patronizing and should be avoided. Persons with disabilities are the same as everyone else in terms of talents and abilities.

The term “survivor” is sometimes applied to people who have recovered from or adjusted to a health condition. Some examples include “brain injury survivor” and “stroke survivor”. Some people also refer to a disability or health condition in terms of a “battle,” as in “to battle cancer.” Although these terms are widely understood and used, many people consider the war rhetoric inappropriate and some find it offensive.

Furthermore, the portrayal of persons with disabilities as intrinsically vulnerable is inappropriate. Vulnerability is produced by external circumstances and is not innate or intrinsic to the person or group concerned. Moreover, everyone can be vulnerable in a given situation or period of time. Some persons with disabilities may be more vulnerable than the rest of the population to certain crimes, such as gender-based violence, but less vulnerable to others, such as identity theft. When the specific barriers and circumstances causing vulnerability are addressed, they are no longer vulnerable.

Avoid labelling people and do not mention a person’s disability or impairment unless it is relevant, particularly in internal communications and emails. You should focus on skills or requirements and point to a person’s impairment only when it brings clarity or provides useful information. If you are discussing quality assessment for Braille documents, for example, you can mention that your colleague is a “Braille user” or can “read Braille” instead of saying that they are blind. Their impairment is not relevant: the relevant fact is that the person has the required skills. Always use this kind of positive and empowering language.

On the other hand, disability should not be made invisible either. Always ensure that disability is duly included in your conversations and work. You should openly and respectfully discuss disability-related issues and make disability inclusion a priority. For far too long, persons with disabilities have lacked representation and participation, and have been neglected, ignored or left behind.

3. Do not use condescending euphemisms

Some expressions have gained popularity over time as alternatives to inappropriate terms. However, many of them reflect the misguided idea that disability needs to be softened. We should therefore not use terms such as “differently abled”, “people of all abilities”, “disAbility” or “people of determination”, as they are all euphemistic and can be considered patronizing or offensive. For example, “differently abled” is problematic because, as some advocates note, we are all differently abled. Euphemisms are, in fact, a denial of reality and a way to avoid talking about disabilities. “Persons with disabilities” is a more neutral term than “differently abled”.

The term “special” used in relation to persons with disabilities is commonly rejected, as it is considered offensive and condescending because it euphemistically stigmatizes that which is different. This term should not be used to describe persons with disabilities, including in expressions such as “special needs” or “special assistance”. We recommend more neutral or positive language when possible, such as “tailored assistance”. The expression “special education” is also widely used to refer to school programmes, but this term carries negative connotations since it usually refers to segregated education.

4. Disability is not an illness or problem

The medical model of disability views disability as a health condition that needs to be fixed or cured. Under this model, persons with disabilities are not seen as rights holders. Similarly, the charity model of disability views disability as a burden or a “problem” that persons without disabilities must solve. This approach depicts persons with disabilities as being objects of charity and pity, perpetuating negative attitudes and stereotypes.

Persons with disabilities should not be referred to as patients unless they are under medical care, and only in that context. You should also avoid labelling persons with disabilities by their diagnoses (for example, “dyslexic”), as this reflects the medical model of disability. Use people-first language instead (for instance, “person with dyslexia” or “has dyslexia”).

Expressions such as “suffers from”, “afflicted with” or “stricken with” are inappropriate. They suggest constant pain and powerlessness and carry the assumption that persons with disabilities have poor quality of life. Instead, you can simply say that a person “has [a disability]” or “is [blind/deaf/deafblind]”.

The term “victim” should not be used unless strictly relevant. It is inappropriate to say that a person is “a victim of cerebral palsy”, for example. Cerebral palsy does not make the person a “victim”. A victim is a person who has been harmed by a crime or has been subject to a human rights violation. Victims are often seen as vulnerable and helpless. This underlying perception must be taken into account when using this term in references to persons with disabilities.

Avoid referring to a person “inside” a disability (for example, “the man inside the paralysed body”) or “beyond” their disability (for example, “she transcended her disability”). Our bodies and minds cannot be separated from who we are. This is ableist language that is offensive to persons with disabilities.

5. Use proper language in oral and informal speech

Most persons with disabilities are comfortable with the words used in daily life. You can say “let’s go for a walk” to a person who uses a wheelchair or write “have you heard the news?” to a person who is deaf. However, phrases such as “blind as a bat” or “deaf as a post” are unacceptable and should never be used, even in informal contexts. You should also be careful with metaphors like “blind to criticism” and “to fall on deaf ears”.

Misused terminology can also be inappropriate and hurtful, so avoid saying “I must have Alzheimer’s” when you forget something or “they’re paranoid” when people seem to be acting with excessive mistrust. Never use disability-related terms as an insult or to express criticism. For example, do not use the word “lame” to mean “boring” or “uncool”.

Gender Inclusive Language Guideline launched by UN Geneva Organisation 2019

Best Practice (extract) examples:

1. Use the pronoun one

“A staff member in Antarctica earns less than he would in New York.” (less inclusive)

“A staff member in Antarctica earns less than one in New York.” (more inclusive)

2. Use the relative pronoun who

If a complainant is not satisfied with the board’s decision, he can ask for a rehearing.” (less inclusive)

“A complainant who is not satisfied with the board’s decision can ask for a rehearing.” (more inclusive)

3. Use a plural antecedent When referring to generic subjects, plural antecedents may be used in order to avoid gendered pronouns.

“A substitute judge must certify that he has familiarized himself with the record of the proceedings.” (less inclusive)

“Substitute judges must certify that they have familiarized themselves with the record of the proceedings.” (more inclusive)

4. Omit the gendered word

“Requests the Emergency Relief Coordinator to continue his/her efforts to strengthen the coordination of humanitarian assistance.” (less inclusive)

“Requests the Emergency Relief Coordinator to continue efforts to strengthen the coordination of humanitarian assistance.” (more inclusive)

“A person must reside continuously in the Territory for 20 years before he may apply for permanent residence.” (less inclusive)

“A person must reside continuously in the Territory for 20 years before applying for permanent residence.” (more inclusive)

5. Use the passive voice The passive voice is not an appropriate option for all sentences in English, as employing the passive voice often changes the emphasis of the sentence. However, it does offer an option for avoiding gendered constructions.

“The author of a communication must have direct and reliable evidence of the situation he is describing.” (less inclusive)

“The author of a communication must have direct and reliable evidence of the situation being described.” (more inclusive)


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