Inclusive Language and Imagery

Inclusive Language and Imagery

How people are represented, described or referred to can have considerable impact on how they feel about themselves and how they are perceived by the public, employers and service providers.

Language guidelines

Not everyone will agree on everything but there is general agreement on some basic guidelines.

Person First or Identity First Language?

Person-first language is often used in professional settings. It means saying “person with a disability,” rather than “disabled person.” The thinking is that by putting the person first, people will focus on the person rather than defining them solely by their disability.

However, many disabled people actively prefer not to use person-first language. Instead, they opt for identity-first e.g. disabled person. This emphasises how people with impairments are disabled by barriers in society i.e. a Social Model understanding of disability. This places the responsibility on society to remove disabling barriers and be fully inclusive of people with impairments. Furthermore many see their lived experience of impairment and disability as part of their identity and what makes them who they are as a person.

Adoption of the Social Model of Disability implies adopting identity first language e.g. ‘disabled person’ rather than ‘person with a disability’. However individuals remain free to make their own choices regarding how they wish to refer to themselves.

Collective terms and labels

The word ‘disabled’ is a description not a group of people. Use ‘disabled people’ not ‘the disabled’ as the collective term.

However, many Deaf people whose first language is BSL consider themselves part of ‘the Deaf community’ – they may describe themselves as ‘Deaf’, with a capital D, to emphasise their Deaf identity.

Avoid medical labels. They say little about people as individuals and tend to reinforce stereotypes of disabled people being ‘patients’ or unwell.

Don’t automatically refer to ‘disabled people’ in all communications – many people who need disability benefits and services don’t identify with this term. Consider using ‘people with health conditions or impairments’ if it seems more appropriate.

Positive not negative

Avoid phrases like ‘suffers from’ which suggest discomfort, constant pain and a sense of hopelessness.

Referring to disabled people as ‘vulnerable’ implies inherent weakness and helplessness. It can also result in making people more of a target for domestic violence, disability related harassment and hate crime. Disabled people can find themselves in vulnerable situations, often due to lack of support and social isolation and it is this that should be tackled.

Wheelchair users may not view themselves as ‘confined or bound to’ a wheelchair – try thinking of it as a mobility aid instead.

Everyday phrases

Most disabled people are comfortable with the words used to describe daily living. People who use wheelchairs ‘go for walks’ and people with vision impairments may be very pleased – or not – ‘to see you’. An impairment may just mean that some things are done in a different way.

Common phrases that may associate impairments with negative things should be avoided, for example ‘deaf to our pleas’, ‘turn a blind eye’ or ‘crippled by debt’.

Words to use and avoid

Avoid passive, victim words. Use language that respects disabled people as active individuals with control over their own lives.



(the) handicapped, (the) disabled

disabled (people)

afflicted by, suffers from, victim of

has [name of condition or impairment]

confined to a wheelchair, wheelchair-bound

wheelchair user

mentally handicapped, mentally defective, retarded, subnormal

People with learning difficulties *

People with cognitive/intellectual impairments *

cripple, invalid

disabled person


person with cerebral palsy



mental patient, insane, mad

person with a mental health condition

deaf and dumb; deaf mute

deaf, user of British Sign Language (BSL), person with a hearing impairment

the blind

people with vision impairments; blind people; blind and partially sighted people

an epileptic, diabetic, depressive, and so on

person with epilepsy, diabetes, depression or someone who has epilepsy, diabetes, depression

dwarf; midget

someone with restricted growth or short stature

fits, spells, attacks


* The term ‘people with a learning disability’ is in widespread use including among self-advocacy groups. From a Social Model perspective equating disability with impairment is problematic therefore those who advocate identity first language may refer to ‘people with learning difficulties’ or ‘people with cognitive or intellectual impairments’.


Disabled people comprise 25% of the Welsh population and in presenting Wales as an inclusive nation, use images that reflect its diverse communities, challenge stereotypes and help break down barriers.

Images selected should represent disabled people as active citizens, exercising choice and control including interacting with non-disabled people in the work place, school or social setting.

Avoid stock images such as a person in a wheelchair looking forlorn and helpless. These reinforce negative stereotypes about how life must be for disabled people. Not all impairments are obvious, however clichés such as ‘helping hands’ or a person being pushed in a wheelchair should be avoided.

Unless an article is about technological aids don’t use an image of a hearing aid, wheelchair or other object to represent disabled people.

Some tips on behaviour

  • use a normal tone of voice, don’t patronise or talk down
  • don’t be too precious or too politically correct – being super-sensitive to the right and wrong language and depictions will stop you doing anything
  • never attempt to speak or finish a sentence for the person you are talking to
  • address disabled people in the same way as you talk to everyone else
  • speak directly to a disabled person, even if they have an interpreter or companion with them


Introduction to Disability Terminology – Reporting on Disability for Journalists Guide

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