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An Ally's Guide to Inclusive Language Regarding People with Disabilities


He drew a circle to shut us out

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout;

But love and I had the wit to win,

We drew a Circle that took him in.

Edwin Markham


Suzanne Richard is an actor, dancer and choreographer with dwarfism. A member of The Kennedy Center's Cultural Caucus and former Accessibility Specialist for the National Endowment for the Arts, she is also the founder of Open Circle Theatre, which promotes employment in the arts for people with disabilities and a more accessible community for all. In this post, she shares some practical measures that everyone can take to ensure that their language is caring and welcoming to artists and patrons alike, regardless of physical ability.






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Why Use Inclusive Language?

According to the Department of Education’s Guidelines for Inclusive Language,


Inclusive language is language that is free from words, phrases or tones that reflect prejudiced, stereotyped or discriminatory views of particular people or groups.

It is also language that doesn't deliberately or inadvertently exclude people

from being seen as part of a group.


When applied to people with disabilities, it is also language that praises rather than idealizes. Inclusive Language is not just about political correctness; it is about empowerment. Additionally, you can eliminate the feeling of exclusion that some may feel because of various differences they may perceive from their peers, as well as the media and society as a whole. Inclusive Language can make our communities a haven of acceptance and a model of an enabling atmosphere. Below are some guidelines that can help you accomplish this goal.


Person-First Wording

Always refer to a person first, rather than a disability; this emphasizes a person’s worth and abilities. Vocabulary changes constantly, but the following five “Never Uses” are here to stay.

  1. Never use the word “handicapped;” the word is “disability.”

  2. Never use a disability as an adjective. It is not a blind writer, but a writer who is blind. Focus on the person, not the disability.

  3. Never use “special;” this separates the individual from the group. For example, information is not required regarding the “special needs of the group,” but rather the “needs of the group.”

  4. Never use euphemisms, such as “physically challenged” or “handicapable.” These are a red flag for not being in-the-know and, being looked at as condescending.

  5. Never use labels: “the disabled,” “the blind,” “the deaf,” “A.B.s” (able-bodied), T.A.B.s” (temporarily able-bodied) or “normal.” Labeling people is never acceptable.


Directions with Open Possibilities

When working with or addressing a group, be aware of the specific disabilities of all the people involved, and challenge yourself to give directions in such a way that excludes no one. Simply changing how you give instructions can allow participants who need to make adaptations to an exercise or activity to do so without having that difference highlighted in front of their peers. Below are some examples of Directions with Open Possibilities:

  • Stand in a circle = come to a circle

  • Sit on the floor = gather on the floor

  • Walk across the room = move across the room

  • Find a place to stand = find a place to be

  • Tell us your story with your voice = share your work with the class


The Press, Disability, and the Subject of Inspiration

As stated previously, Inclusive Language should be admiring, not idealizing. For some persons with disabilities, being an inspiration is something they strive for. But for others-- often people who were either born with their disability or have had a disability for a longer time-- find this a burden and prefer to be admired instead. If something is inspirational, they would hope it is their work, not themselves, that has evoked this feeling. It is often best to gage the tone of an interview with the attitude of the interviewee, rather than impose your expectations. Regardless, "inspiring" is an overused word and presents the opportunity to not only choose different verbiage, but also an alternative tone.



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