Using inclusive language: A handy guide

November 8, 2022  //  FOUND IN: Updates & Resources, ,

Approximately a 6-minute read

Key takeaways:

  • It is essential to use inclusive language to create a welcome, equitable culture at Michigan Medicine.
  • The Department of Communication is creating a handy guide that will make it easier for you to use proper phrasing and language in both the written and verbal form.
  • The first section of the guide covers disability and the language surrounding it.

When using the written or spoken word, language is essential when it comes to creating a welcoming, inclusive and equitable environment — which aligns perfectly with U-M Health’s strategic priority of Belonging and inclusion

As the priority states, promoting and advancing an inclusive culture “will improve health care equity and reduce health disparities.” It will also enhance engagement among faculty, staff and learners.

To help you play your part and support a more engaging culture, the Department of Communication, in collaboration with the Center for Disability Health and Wellness, has created a handy guide to make sure your language does not intentionally or unintentionally create an unwelcoming atmosphere.

The first topic to be discussed as part of this new Headlines series revolves around disability.

The basics

The most important tip when discussing or writing about disability is to use people-first language. This means that an individual “has a disability,” they are not a “disabled person.”

Here are some other oft-used phrases and some more appropriate alternatives:

Writing or speaking about autism

People on the autism spectrum feel that, in the past, the condition has often been characterized in extremely negative, stigmatizing terms, with an infamous PSA claiming that autism destroys families, “work[ing] faster than pediatric AIDS, cancer and diabetes combined.”

Nowadays, people on the autism spectrum often embrace their diagnosis as an identity and a fundamental part of who they are.

Using the term “Asperger syndrome”

There is a lot of debate in the autism community regarding the continued use of the term “Asperger syndrome.” This is because a recent paper uncovered ties between Hans Asperger, whom the condition is named after, and the National Socialist party in Austria between 1928 and 1944. It is best to avoid the use of the term whenever possible and clear the use of the terminology with the subjects being discussed/interviewed.

Further reading: Which terms should be used to describe autism? Perspectives from the UK autism community.

Take 10: Ten quick ways to improve your disability etiquette

  • When talking to a person with a disability, speak directly to that person rather than through a companion or sign language interpreter who may be present.
  • When introduced to a person with a disability, it is sometimes appropriate to shake hands. Consider asking “is it okay if I shake your hand?” before initiating contact. People with limited hand use or who wear an artificial limb can usually shake hands. Shaking hands with the left hand is an acceptable greeting in most countries. 
  • When meeting a person with a visual impairment, always identify yourself and others who may be with you. When conversing in a group, remember to identify the person to whom you are speaking.
  • If you offer assistance, wait until the offer is accepted. Then listen to or ask for instructions.
  • Treat adults as adults. Address people who have disabilities by their first names only when extending that same familiarity to all others present. Never patronize people who use wheelchairs by patting them on the head or shoulder.
  • Leaning or hanging on a person’s wheelchair is similar to leaning or hanging on a person and is generally considered annoying. The chair is part of the personal body space of the person who uses it.
  • Listen attentively when you’re talking with a person who has difficulty speaking. Be patient and wait for the person to finish, rather than correcting or speaking for the person. If necessary, ask short questions that require short answers, a nod, or a shake of the head. Never pretend to understand if you are having difficulty doing so. Instead, repeat what you have understood and allow that person to respond. The response will clue you in and guide your understanding.
  • When speaking with a person in a wheelchair or a person who uses a mobility aid, it is best to place yourself at eye level in front of that person to facilitate the conversation.
  • To get the attention of a person who is hard of hearing, tap the person on the shoulder or wave your hand. Look directly at the person and speak clearly. Not all people with hearing loss can lip-read. For those who do lip-read, be sensitive to their needs by placing yourself facing the light source and keeping hands, cigarettes and food away from your mouth when speaking.
  • Relax. Don’t be embarrassed if you happen to use accepted, common expressions, such as “See you later” or “Did you hear about this?” that seem to relate to the person’s disability.