Avoiding ableist terminology

James L. Cherney, Ph.D., associate professor in communication studies, gives several useful tips on how to avoid ableist terminology.

  • Use the terminology preferred by the person or group being addressed.
    • For example, don't use terms like “blind review” which relies on equivocating blindness with ignorance. Instead, use "anonymous review" or "peer review."
    • For example, don't use words referring to disabilities and conditions in ways that perpetuates ableist assumptions. "Wheelchair bound." Instead, "wheelchair user" is more accurate.
  • “Identity first” versus “person first” language
    • Instead of using terms that identify a person followed by a description of the disability such as, "people with disabilities,” use “identity first,” which recognizes the disability as central to who they are. This is the practice of those who often capitalize the disability when used to identify themselves, as in “Deaf” or “Autistic.”
  • (Re)claimed terms
    • There are some historically denigrating words that people choose to proudly (re)claim to emphasize their identities.
    • Be aware of this practice, but avoid using these terms unless you are certain that they are what the person prefers.
  • Ascribing positive connotations to ability
    • It can be argued that an expression such as “I see what you mean” conveys an ableist perspective because it equivocates sight with comprehension, which necessarily links the inability to see with an inability to understand.
    • If you want to avoid risking offense and are unsure what your audience considers appropriate, the easy solution is to not use references to bodies as metaphors. In other words, simply use “I understand what you mean” if that is what you want to express.