Inclusive language webinar - The word disability doesn't hurt!

Language creates reality. The way we use language subconsciously changes our attitudes towards people with disabilities. The myAbility Economic Forum devoted a one-hour webinar to this topic and discussed with various experts how language contributes to the inclusion and exclusion of people with disabilities in our society. A great deal of this responsibility rests with the companies

Disability? Impairment? Disabled people? Where does this considerable uncertainty come from when we talk about disabilities? And how do I adequately include the topic in corporate communication? This was discussed by three experts from different perspectives, who came to the following conclusion: Besides inclusive language, the context in which companies discuss the issue of disability is important.

Language creates reality

A survey showed that 64 percent of nearly 300 company representatives said the following: "When I talk about disability, I am very careful, I try to be open-minded and try not to say anything wrong." This result didn’t surprise Heidemarie Egger, communication scientist of the Austrian Disability Council. This uncertainty comes mainly from the lack of experiences with people with disabilities and different attitudes, which she presented as follows:

  • Tragedy / Charity model (obsolete): People with disabilities need to be helped. The focus is on supporting a pitiful minority.
  • Medical model (obsolete): The disability should be compensated. The focus is on conforming to the “norm”.
  • Social model: The barriers come from the outside. The focus is on environmental barriers and not on the disability.
  • Human rights-based model: People with and without disabilities have the same rights and obligations. The focus is on equal opportunities.

The personal approach one has to this topic is expressed primarily through language. From a mutual perspective, language also contributes to our attitude towards people with disabilities.

"Language paves the way to an inclusive society.” Heidemarie Egger, Austrian Disability Council

As in other subject areas, language use and formulations are constantly evolving. “People with special needs” was considered a very common term for a long time, however, today it is no longer used. It was highlighted several times that the word “disability” in itself is not negative. Rather, it depends on how it is used. In order to promote the inclusion of people with disabilities, the following questions should be asked in communication:

  • Is the person or the disability emphasized (person-first / identity-first language)?
  • Is the communication based on clichés or outdated approaches (charity / medical)?
  • In what context am I talking about disability?

Reflecting reality through inclusive communication

Language offers a variety of ways to express ourselves. Janis McDavid, an international motivational speaker, provided insights into how he reaches his audience. Furthermore, he deliberately uses provocation as a stylistic element in his keynote speeches, but states, "I have to be aware of the role I am in when I am speaking about the issue of disability and how I am going to resolve it in the end. It makes a difference whether one talks about the subject as a private person, as an interest group or as a company representative.” Especially companies need to be aware of their corporate social responsibility.

"Inclusive communication means that companies include the issue of disability in their communication, even if it is not about people with disabilities or accessibility.” Julia Moser, myAbility

Many companies already know the dos and don’ts and use inclusive language. However, they only talk about disability when it is directly related to it. For instance, support is shown in campaigns and offered to organizations, employees with disabilities are positively recognized, and initiatives for more accessibility are promoted. This type of communication is important as it values the topic and makes it visible. However, we speak of inclusive corporate communication when business communication allows for the topic of disability without making direct reference to disability. According to the myAbility Management Consultant, inclusive communication means reflecting the reality of people with and without disabilities. For instance, advertisements in which people with disabilities can be seen, without their disabilities being important in terms of content, nor being dramatized, can be considered a positive example.

"Inclusion concerns the whole of society and the work isn’t done until it has become a fundamental attitude.” Janis McDavid, speaker and author