When library professionals write or speak about accessibility, it’s important to follow current best practices with regards to language. Whether writing policies, social media posts, marketing campaigns, or signage, it’s essential to use inclusive language that celebrates the diversity of experiences. Although language changes over time and can be regional in nature, there are certain best practices that ensure an inclusive library environment.
Many people who write about disabilities prefer to use “person-first” language. In this style, the person comes first, and the condition comes second. For example, one would use the phrase “child with a learning disability” rather than “learning disabled child,” or “person living with blindness” instead of “blind person.” The theory behind this nomenclature is that the emphasis should be on the person, not the condition.
People-first language, however, is not universal. Some feel it is better to use “identity-first” language. Many people, for example, prefer language such as “deaf,” “autistic” or “blind” to describe themselves. For them, their disability is so integral to their life and experience that it is an identity. Identity-first language is the preferred usage many self-advocates.
In her blog post for the Autistic Self Advocacy Network Identity First Lang, Autism self-advocate Lydia Brown states:
“When we say “Autistic person,” we recognize, affirm, and validate an individual’s identity as an Autistic person. We recognize the value and worth of that individual as an Autistic person —Ultimately, we are accepting that the individual is different from non-Autistic people–and that that’s not a tragedy, and we are showing that we are not afraid or ashamed to recognize that difference.”
The seventh edition of the American Psychological Association Publication Manual describes the choice this way:
"In person-first language, the person is emphasized, not the individual’s disabling or chronic condition (e.g., use “a person with paraplegia” and “a youth with epilepsy” rather than “a paraplegic” or “an epileptic”). Identity-first language is often used as an expression of cultural pride and a reclamation of a disability that once conferred a negative identity. This type of language allows for constructions such as “blind person,” “autistic person,” and “amputee,” whereas in person-first language, the constructions would be “person who is blind,” “person with autism,” and “person with an amputation,” respectively. Those who embrace their disability as part of their cultural and/or personal identity are more likely to prefer identity-first language. If you are unsure of which approach to use, seek guidance from self-advocacy groups or other stakeholders specific to a group of people.”
If possible, the best way to determine which style of language to use is to respectfully ask people what their preferences are. If that is not possible, start with people-first language and be open to feedback.
- Avoid outdated terminology and words such as “handicapped.” See the resources below for examples of these terms.
- Avoid using an adjective as a noun, as in the dyslexic or the disabled.
- Use words and phrases that highlight the features of accessible library service and promote inclusion not segregation. For example, use the phrase “accessible restrooms” instead of “disabled restrooms.”
- The phrase “special needs” has fallen out of favor. A video from the advocacy group Not Special Needs outlines why this phrase is considered offensive by many: https://tinyurl.com/moxnrno
- “Neurodiverse” is an umbrella term encompassing ASD and learning and attention issues. Intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities, and mental health issues are often included under this umbrella. “Neurotypical” is its antonym.
- The American Psychological Association includes a helpful discussion about language in the seventh edition of their publication manual.
- The National Center on Disability and Journalism at Arizona State University has a comprehensive guide to over 200 words and phrases.
- The Canadian Medical Association Journal has a series of three articles illuminating the pros and cons of “person-first” and “identity-first” language.
- The ADA National Network has easy-to-understand guidelines for writing about people with disabilities.
- The Research and Training Center on Independent Living at Kansas University has a style guide and glossary for writing and reporting about people with disabilities.
- Disability in Kidlit is a helpful resource with a guide on common terminology, with a special focus on young people.
New toolkit updated by the ASGCLA Accessibility Assembly, August 2020