Use of language


Use of language

The TUC briefing Words Can Never Hurt Me? has a detailed explanation of how the choice of language can help or hinder our campaigning for disabled rights.

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. Here are some suggestions on use of language

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

The social model of disability

Prospect agrees with the TUC and the disabled people's movement  that  people are disabled by the barriers that stand in the way of their participation in society and in the workplace. These barriers can be physical and attitudinal, and by tackling them we can ensure full participation, to everyone's benefit. This is the social model which negotiators and representatives should adopt in their workplace negotiations. The social model is based on what disabled people can do rather than what they cannot do. The TUC has produced a guide  Trade Unions and Disabled Members: Why the social model matters . See also Understanding disability by clicking on the link on the left-hand side of this page.