Inclusive Language and the Accessible BC Act: The Dangers of Euphemisms


Clients often ask me if it’s better to use terms like “differently abled” or “diverse-ability,” instead of the word disability itself.

Man reading braille book in library.

As an accessibility consulting agency, we’ve supported over 120 organizations to comply with the Accessible BC Act. As we dig into the work of developing accessibility plans and committees, I am often asked by our clients about respectful language choices.

I’m glad people are getting curious about respectful language. But using euphemisms is not the act of allyship you may be hoping for. Even worse, it may be dangerous.

Such euphemisms fail to reflect the barriers that people with disabilities face daily. They also step away from the most powerful tool people with disabilities must use to combat stigma and discrimination—the law.

Challenging stigma with respectful language

Language choices can be highly personal. Some people may prefer person-first language, like “person with a disability,” and others may prefer identity-first language, such as “disabled person.”  There is much to learn, and the diversity of opinions can seem like an invitation to stagnate.

While respectful language is an important question, dwelling on it too much distracts us from the larger harms and tangible social inequities experienced by people with disabilities. Disabled people face higher rates of unemployment, they still get paid less than nondisabled people, and they still experience large disparities in their access to programs, services and facilities.  

It’s true that having a disability has been stigmatized in our society and using the term may feel uncomfortable at first. As a result, some people feel drawn to alternate terms thinking they reflect the idea that we are all equal and that it’s just our ability that differentiates us. Unfortunately, such terms skirt the very real problem that in Canada, people with disabilities regularly face barriers in multiple areas of society. 

The term “special needs” is another troubling euphemism sometimes still used in education across the country. The term is inaccurate, as specific needs of a student are not special; they are human rights working to ensure that a student can equitably partake in learning. When used outside of education, the term “special needs” does nothing more than act as a separation, creating an “us” and “them.”

Untapped Accessibility guides organizations to create inclusive environments where people with disabilities can live, work, enjoy, and most importantly, voice their concerns and be heard. Because euphemisms avoid naming the grounds of our discrimination, they do a very poor job in protecting us or helping us call out the harm that is happening to us.

The strength in legally protected terms

In the case of the Accessible Canada Act and the Accessible BC Act, the term enshrined in the legislation is “disability.” And long before these more recent pieces of legislation, federal and provincial human rights legislation named disability as a protected identity.

Unprotected terms like the euphemisms I’ve noted can become watered down. Personal choice aside, they don’t reflect the intent of establishing inclusion for people with disabilities.

What is enshrined in human rights legislation is a matter of fact, and not opinion. Stepping away from what is legally established is counter to our progress toward equal opportunity and full personhood.

Chris Lytle is the Senior Accessibility Consultant at Untapped Accessibility. Chris is an accomplished accessibility expert who specializes in legislative implementation and organizational capacity building. Chris can speak French and is a person with a disability. He lives in Guelph, Ontario with his partner and their three children.