Kate Stanforth writes about the importance of disability language:

No-one plans on becoming disabled. It’s something that happens because of an accident, illness, or you were born with a disability.

One out of three disabled people feel there’s a lot of disabled prejudice, and I want to raise some issues around disability language that add to this prejudice.

There is no doubt that there are ever growing gaps between disabled and non-disabled people in the community.

One of the simple ways to bridge some of these gaps is through good communication, and using the correct inclusive language in this is key.

The most important aspect of disability language is education.

What was appropriate to say even a few years ago can now be classed as offensive. However, what I wouldn’t want as a disabled person myself would be someone to be too scared to talk to me in case they used the incorrect terminology, and that’s why inclusive language education matters.

Inclusion in conversation itself is key. My social life has changed dramatically since becoming disabled and I certainly don’t have the same opportunities to socialise as everyone else.

For me, even having a brief chat in a coffee shop or saying ‘hello’ to someone when I’m out walking my dog may be the only social contact I get that week.

During the coronavirus pandemic, I haven’t been out for five months, so it’s even more meaningful.

The first point to consider is that disabled people like to be called by their name.

I’m Kate, not ‘The Girl in the Wheelchair’. Likewise, calling someone ‘wheelchair-bound’ is an out-dated term and implies that the wheelchair constrains the person to their chair.

My wheelchair enables me to go out and achieve so much; it is not a negative thing.

Other outdated terms for disabled people include ‘handicapped’ and ‘crippled,’ something which unfortunately you still hear a lot of in modern-day society. To make matters worse, you hear a lot of old-fashioned disability language thrown around as playground insults. Having a disability isn’t, and shouldn’t be, insulting.

Not using collective terms is another relatively new rule, such as referring to a group as ‘disabled people’ instead of ‘the disabled.’

Doing this means you aren’t grouping people and looking at them more as individuals. The way you talk to a disabled person is also incredibly important.

On many occasions, people will only speak to my carer, never directly to me. Try to make sure that you are engaging with the person with a disability and talk just like you would to anyone else.

Use a normal tone of voice, be careful that you aren’t being patronising and try to look at the disabled person even if they aren’t able to communicate themselves. A polite way of asking someone about their disability would be something like ‘Would you mind telling me a bit more about your condition?’

I, like many others, find it rather rude to be asked ‘what happened to you?’ or ‘what is wrong with you?’ as it implies having a disability isn’t normal. Although I am a wheelchair user, I still say ‘I’m going for a walk,’ and many other wheelchair users would be ok with this. Phrases like this normalise the situation, and because it’s positive, it’s perfectly ok to use.

An impairment means we do things differently, and we don’t always have to adjust the terminology to suit that.

Disabilities come in all shapes and sizes. I am an ambulatory wheelchair user, which means that I use a wheelchair but I can walk short distances.

I cannot count the amount of times that I’ve got out my wheelchair and heard ‘she’s faking it’ or ‘it’s a miracle’.

Many disabilities are invisible, so be mindful of this as those with invisible illnesses are often the ones who get the most grief from the public. Language is constantly evolving, so this will continue to change.

The best way to keep up with the latest guidelines is by speaking with a disabled advocate in your area or checking on a disability website.

Not everyone will agree with the terminology, and even I, a disabled person, will get some of it wrong. But what is critical is that we educate, and we try to bridge those barriers in the best way possible.