Effective marketing is all about knowing your audience — and that includes addressing people appropriately and respectfully. Words matter. When it comes to communicating with people with disabilities in a positive manner, using the correct disability language and terminology is key.
As with any collective group, the preferred verbiage may seem like it’s constantly changing; however, it’s important to stay as up-to-date on acceptable word choices as possible. Your goal should be to discard outdated, offensive terms in favor of inclusive messaging.
Let’s take a look at some key components to ensuring an empowering dialogue with people with disabilities.
Keep it relevant
Only mention someone’s disability when it’s necessary. Otherwise, it comes across as exclusive and potentially offensive.
Mentioning someone’s disability when it has a direct correlation to the context of the story is helpful and purposeful.
First-person language is powerful
One tip to keep in mind when speaking or writing about people with disabilities is to mention the person first, not the disability.
Using “person-first” word choice by saying, “a child with Down syndrome,” is usually preferable to “identity-first” terminology, like “a Down syndrome child.”
Why do these semantics matter so much? By placing initial emphasis on the person instead of their disability, you’re essentially reinforcing the fact that people are more than their disabilities. One’s disability is a part of their identity and not the other way around.
This is one of the more debatable practices across the disabled community, and varies depending on the particular disability you’re referring to. An example of this preferential difference can be seen when referring to deaf community members, who sometimes prefer identity-first language.
Ask before you write
Even if you do write about a person’s disabilities as it applies to a specific situation, you should still ask the person if it’s OK. For example, if your brand is hosting a fundraiser for someone with a disability, you should run any messaging by the recipient before publishing it.
Again, you might write something that’s well-intentioned, but it should be approved before it’s public.
You can also reach out to organizations that are reputable voices when it comes to addressing disabilities in media for their guidance.
Use neutral language
A common mistake in referring to those with disabilities is to use language that labels them as victims in distress.
For example, saying that someone “suffers” from a disability implies that you should feel sorry for that person.
And don’t use overly positive words either. Using verbiage that describes someone’s disability as somewhat of a superpower can be just as offensive, despite the best of intentions.
Praise of this nature may be completely well-meaning and genuine, but it can have an adverse effect by coming across as disingenuous and phony.
When in doubt, leave the exaggerated or flowery language behind in favor of acknowledging someone’s disability in a straightforward manner.
Terms like “differently-abled,” “challenged,” or “handi-capable” should also be avoided. Most people with disabilities find them offensive and would rather their disability be stated factually, provided it’s necessary to the conversation. Avoid referring to people without a disability as “normal,” too.
The overall takeaway
In the past decade alone, there has been a huge shift to more inclusive in content marketing efforts. Honest, open dialogue is necessary and crucial for eliminating outdated, offensive language and recognizing the weight of our words and actions. Making a conscious effort to implement inclusive language helps to ensure you’re reaching and resonating with your target audience.