The Higher Ed Workplace Blog

Are You Making These Mistakes When Referring to Employees With Disabilities?

“It’s not what you say, it’s what you do.”

Maybe you’ve heard this common phrase. Maybe you’ve said it yourself. While this statement is somewhat true, being careless with your words can cause lasting harm. Think about this in terms of the language you use when referring to those with disabilities at your institution.

One of the major goals of higher ed HR is to help individuals with disabilities feel respected and included, but this can quickly backfire if the words you’re using to refer or speak to them come off as offensive.

Here are some examples of words and phrases commonly used when referring to individuals with disabilities, and what you should say instead:

  • Say “A person with disabilities” instead of “A disabled person.”
    A person’s disability isn’t the sum of what makes up their identity, just as someone’s culture isn’t the only facet of their identity. By using the former phrase, you’re putting the person first, not their disability.
  • Say “Low vision,” “Hard of hearing,” or “Uses a wheelchair” instead of “Impaired.”
    When speaking about a person’s disability, identify the specific disability rather than using the term “impaired.” “Impaired” implies that the person is weak or damaged and is an all-encompassing term that lumps people into one group, whereas each person’s disability is different.
  • Say “Adjustments,” or “Modifications” instead of “Accommodations.”
    Although it’s frequently used in legal contexts, the term “accommodations” implies that the individual with a disability is receiving a courtesy or special service, when the reality is that the modification is essential for the employee to complete their work.

Be mindful of how your words can make a person with a disability feel. Are your words making them feel included or singled-out? Empowered or incapable?

You can help ensure your institution’s inclusion efforts are successful on all fronts by using more appropriate and inclusive words and phrases when speaking about a person with a disability.

Read other common wording mistakes and share them with leaders at your institution who could benefit from changing the way they speak to or about those with disabilities.

Related resources:

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Toolkit (CUPA-HR members-only resource)

Workplace Inclusivity for People With Disabilities: Creating a Welcoming Environment for All

HR and Student Affairs: Partnering Around Diversity and Inclusion