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Style Manual

People with disability

Disability does not define people. Use inclusive language that respects diversity.

Focus on the person, not the disability

Mention disability only when it’s relevant to the content.

When you are writing about people with disability, focus on the person. Engage with people through user research.

User research can uncover whether an individual or community preference is:

  • person-first language
  • identity-first language.

Use person-first language for Australian Government content, unless user research says otherwise.

Example

people with disability [Person-first language]

disabled person [Identity-first language]

Be responsive if you get feedback on the language you’ve used. It can guide user research around language that respects individual or community preferences.

Accessibility and inclusivity requirements

You must design accessible content to meet the Digital Service Standard:

You must make all government content accessible to people with disability. 

Use respectful and inclusive language that talks to the person – not their difference.

Commonwealth laws include:

Use respectful language

Respectful language acknowledges peoples’ preferences to identify with a particular community or characteristic. 

Terms should not identify people without an understanding of personal preference. For example, many people who are deaf or hard of hearing may identify as ‘Deaf’ – a cultural group with a different first language. 

Avoid using the disability as an adjective that defines the person, unless that is their preference. Use the word ‘disability’ as an uncountable noun.

Use person-first language when you don’t understand individual or community preferences. Describe the person and then the characteristic.

Write this

person with disability

person who is deaf or hard of hearing

person who is blind or has low vision

person living with disability

person with mental illness, person with psychosocial disability, person with a psychiatric condition

person with intellectual disability, person with developmental disability

person with learning disability

person with cognitive disability

person who uses a wheelchair or mobility device

person with reduced mobility

person with physical disability

accessible parking

Not this

person with a disability

handicapped person

handicapped parking

crippled

invalid

incapacitated

mad

mute

deaf and dumb

deaf person

blind person

person without sight

You can cause offence when you do not use respectful language, even if it is well intentioned.

  • Don’t say a person is inspirational only because of their disability.
  • Don’t write about people as if they are heroes or victims.
  • Avoid euphemisms and made-up terms, such as ‘differently abled’ and ‘handicapable’.

People with disability could consider these types of terms condescending.  

When you are making comparisons, write:

  • ‘person without disability’ – rather than ‘able-bodied’
  • ‘sighted person’ for someone who is not blind
  • ‘hearing person’ for someone who is not deaf
  • ‘neurotypical’ for someone who is not autistic.

The social model of disability

The traditional view of disability has been a medical model. In this approach, disability is a health condition for health professionals to treat, fix or cure. 

Many people with disability prefer another approach: the social model of disability. This is a way to understand how people with disability interact with their environment and others in society.

The social model is about shifting the problem from individual impairments to the social environment that people operate in.

From this viewpoint, disability arises from the way people with disability interact with the world. They encounter physical barriers, digital barriers and barriers of attitudes and communication. These block their participation in society.

The social model recognises the reality of a disability and its effects. By contrast, the medical model looks at impairments that create a medical condition.

The Australian Federation of Disability Organisations has more information on the social model of disability.

Advocates of the social model of disability focus on the barriers to participating in society faced by people living with disability.

People who are blind or have low vision

‘Legal blindness’ or being ‘legally blind’ have specific definitions. In government use, these terms relate a person's sight loss to eligibility criteria. Many people who are legally blind do have some vision. 

The terms ‘blind’ and ‘low vision’ include people with no sight and people who have some sight.

A person who is totally blind does not perceive light and has no usable vision. A person who has low vision has some ability to see. Wearing regular glasses will not improve their vision.

A person who is blind or who has low vision might use screen reading software, Braille displays, or screen magnification technology to access content. People who are blind might use other ways to communicate using hearing or touch.

Acceptable terms include ‘person who is blind’ and ‘person who has low vision. Don’t write ‘the blind’ or ‘person without sight’.

People who are deaf or hard of hearing

The terms ‘deaf’ and ‘hard of hearing’ include people with no hearing or limited hearing. They might have difficulty using audio content. If you are providing audio content, make the information available in other ways – such as captions and a transcript.

The World Federation of the Deaf disapproves of the term ‘hearing impaired’ as it describes people as if they have a deficiency.

Refer to someone with hearing loss as a ‘person who is deaf or hard of hearing’.

Some people who are deaf or hard of hearing use the Australian sign language, Auslan. Some people who are deaf or hard of hearing view themselves as members of a community and language group. This community calls itself the Deaf community, and encourages others to do the same. The Deaf community uses the term with a capital letter ‘D’ as a mark of its identity.

Members of the Deaf community might still use deaf with a lowercase ‘d’ to refer to their hearing.

People with cognitive disability

People with cognitive disability include people with intellectual disability, acquired brain injury or dementia.

‘Cognitive disability’ is a broad term that covers a range of conditions. Genes, illnesses, injury, physical factors or environmental factors may cause cognitive disability.

Creating content in more than one format, such as making an Easy Read version, can help some people with cognitive disability access information. Follow W3C updates on making content usable for people with cognitive and learning disabilities.

People with learning disability

People with ‘learning disability’ might have difficulty planning and difficulty processing new information. The causes are neurological. They are difficult to address and can be lifelong.

Some Australian support groups and educators use ‘learning difficulty’ and ‘learning disability’ for all people who have difficulty learning a basic academic skill. 

Learning disability is not the same as a learning difficulty, which can be overcome with intensive teaching or training. Learning difficulties are not generally considered to be disability.

Examples of learning disabilities are dyslexia (reading), dyscalculia (mathematics) and various auditory processing disorders (sound and verbal instructions). Having a learning disability is not related to intelligence.

People with mental illness

‘Mental illness’ is a broad term that covers many different conditions that influence the way people act, think, feel or see the world.

The term ‘psychosocial disability’ is specific to some people with severe mental health conditions. It covers both psychological and social factors. It focuses on restrictions on participating in society. Not every mental illness involves a psychosocial disability.

Some ways of talking about mental illness can cause offence.

Use people-first language when you refer to a person with mental illness.

Write this

people with mental illness

people with mental ill-health

Not this

the mentally ill

Describe the person as ‘having’ mental illness, just as you would for any other illness or injury. Don’t describe the person as ‘being’ a disease.

Write this

Rupert has schizophrenia.

Alice has depression.

Lu has bipolar disorder.

Not this

Rupert is a schizophrenic.

Alice is a depressive.

Lu is bipolar.

Mental illness sometimes attracts social stigma. This stigma may prevent people from acknowledging their mental health conditions and talking about them with others.

There is advice about the best language to use for mental illness in guides from the Australian Human Rights Commission and Everymind.

Neurodiversity

The term ‘neurodiversity’ refers to the idea that neurological differences, such as autism and ADHD, sit within the normal spectrum of human variation. Neurological differences are not always a disability. Advocates refer to the diverse range of differences in the brain and behaviour. They say societal barriers are the main factors disabling people.

Neurodiversity was first used for people on the autism spectrum. It is now also applied to other conditions, such as dyslexia.

Release notes

The digital edition revises and expands inclusive terminology on the topic of people with disability. It includes a new section on the ‘social model of disability’.

The sixth edition related inclusive language around disability to the legal requirements for accessibility, and briefly mentioned the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Contextual references to those guidelines appear throughout the digital edition.

The Content Guide had summary information about complying with WCAG and on inclusive language.

The digital edition will continue to update terms on inclusive language to reflect contemporary usage.

About this page

Evidence

Australian Network on Disability (2019) Inclusive language, AND website, accessed 25 August 2020.

Disabled People’s Organisations Australia (2020) Terminology, DPOA website, accessed 25 August 2020.

International Day of People with Disability (2018) Respectful communication, IDPwD website, accessed 25 August 2020. 

People with Disability Australia (2018) Social model of disability, PWDA website, accessed 25 August 2020.

PWDA (2018) ‘Identity-first vs person-first language’, Language guide, PWDA website, accessed 25 August 2020.

References

Australian Disability Clearinghouse on Education and Training (n.d.) ‘Learning difficulty versus learning disability’, Specific learning disability, ADCET website, accessed 6 November 2019. 

Australian Inclusive Publishing Initiative (2019) Inclusive publishing in Australia: an introductory guide, AIPI website, accessed 21 May 2020.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (September 2019) People with disability in Australia, AIHW, accessed 25 August 2020.

Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (New York, 13 December 2006) [2008], UNTS 2515 p. 3.

Inclusion Australia (n.d.) What is intellectual disability?, Inclusion Australia website, accessed 10 September 2020.

Vision Australia (n.d.) Blindness and vision loss, Vision Australia website, accessed 22 May 2020.

Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability (December 2019), Issues paper: health care for people with cognitive disability, Disability Royal Commission website, accessed 3 September 2020.

Worldwide Web Consortium (2020) Making content usable for people with cognitive and learning disabilities [working draft], W3C website, accessed 27 August 2020.

W3C (2017) Diverse abilities and barriers, W3C website, accessed 25 August 2020. 

This page was updated Friday 18 September 2020.

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