The dos and don’ts of talking about disability

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Regardless of how well-meaning an HR professional might be, it’s still easy to slip-up and use an outdated expression that could cause offense – so how can you be sure that you’re choosing the right terminology when talking about disability?

Shelley Hourston is a program director with Disability Alliance BC – she says it can help to remember the general principle of “people first.”

“We are all ‘people first’ with myriad characteristics,” Hourston explains. “A disability or chronic health condition is simply one characteristic.”
Examples of ‘people first’ language include:
  • ‘A person with epilepsy” rather than ‘an epileptic’
  • ‘John has a mental health disability’ rather than ‘John is psychotic’
Hourston also offered a list of key phrases and words which would very likely be deemed offensive, as well as some alternatives HR professionals could adopt.

  • Mentally retarded – use: developmental disability or intellectual disability
  • Cripple, deformed, birth defect – use: person with a disability
  • Confined to a wheelchair – use: a wheelchair user
  • Suffers from, afflicted or stricken with X – use: person living with X
  • Victim of X – use: a person living with X
  • Invalid – use: a person with a disability
Hourston also acknowledged that many of the terms now deemed offensive were once acceptable so the shifting goal posts can make it difficult for HR to use the right terminology every time – but she did offer her advice on conquering this.
“There are two things that will help when encountering a disability or chronic health condition and you have no idea what language to use,” she said.


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