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 what is called “people-first” or “person-first” language. In this style, the person comes first, and the situation comes second. For example, one might use the phrase “person with autism” rather than “autistic person,” or “person living with blindness” instead of “blind person.” The theory behind this communication style 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 a style one might call “identity-first,” which means that the situation is the descriptor. These people may prefer language such as “autistic” or “blind” to describe a person. Others may see their disability as so integral to their life and experience that they prefer descriptors such as “autistic” or “disabled.” Identity-first language is often the preferred usage among self-advocates.
In a 2015 article in American Psychologist
called “Person-First and Identity-First Language: Developing Psychologists’ Cultural Competence Using Disability Language,” the authors Dana Dunn and Erin Andrews explain the issue in this way:
“The American Psychological Association (APA) advocates the use of person-first language (e.g., people with disabilities) to refer to individuals with disabilities in daily discourse and to reduce bias in psychological writing. Disability culture advocates and disability studies scholars have challenged the rationale for and implications of exclusive person-first language use, promoting use of identity-first language (e.g., disabled people). We argue that psychologists should adopt identity-first language alongside person-first constructions to address the concerns of disability groups while promoting human dignity and maintaining scientific and professional rigor.”
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 person 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- Avoid outdated terminology and words such as “handicapped.”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, rather than the presence of people with different needs. 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 disabiltiies and mental health issues are often included under this umbrella. “Neurotypical” is its antynom.
New toolkit updated by the ASGCLA Accessibility Assembly, June 2020