Writing or reporting on disability is not simply a matter of using the right terminology, though that is of course an important part. Like with inclusive language generally, it is as much about guiding principles and conventions as it is about absolute rules. Even overarching principles and conventions change all the time, as social, political and cultural dimensions of disability evolve. Disability is also not something that is always immediately identifiable, in the sense that there are invisible disabilities, and this can present unique challenges for reporting and communication.

With that word of caution, here are some guiding principles and conventions to think about when writing or reporting on disability.

  • If a story is about a disabled person and takes up disability as part of its subject matter, ask how that person would like to be referred to. It is always better to ask. If you cannot ask, try to use the language that is most often used in that community. If you are unsure or cannot confirm, use identity-first language as a default, such as “disabled person.” Note, however, that some people prefer “person with a disability” or “people with disabilities.”

  • Even in stories that are not about disability, be wary of ableism. This is no easy task and calls writers and communicators to constant vigilance in the way they use language. The subtle preference of ability over disability is pervasive in written and spoken language, like in simple words or phrases such as “upstanding” or others highlighted below.

  • A story in which disability is part of the subject matter need not be framed as inspirational or a heroic narrative of overcoming. A person should not be said to achieve something “despite their disability” or to be “suffering from a disability.” Writers should be wary of imposing their preconceptions on a story about disability, and instead attempt to dispassionately understand the narrative or story they are trying to convey.

  • “Nothing About Us Without Us” has been a rallying cry in the disability rights movement for decades. Too often, disability is written about from the perspective of doctors and other experts, or parents and other caregivers. Disabled people need to be at the center of their own stories.

Contact us

If you have any further questions about disability and accessibility, please contact AccessAbility Services by email at access@uwaterloo.ca.