Introduction to Accessible Design in Media

Language (Part One)

Image: A single talking mouth


In this section, we will look at the language used to represent and discuss disability. It is important to remember that self-identification is key and when you are talking to or about someone, ask them how they identify or how they would like to be referred to. Above all else, this may be the most important, respectful and effective way to establish who and what you are talking about.

Media practitioners and communicators in general ideally strive to use the most accurate and current terminology. Consequently, those engaged in media creation and distribution are urged to also engage in an ongoing process that thoughtfully evaluates language and avoids inaccurate, archaic and offensive expressions that perpetuate negative stereotypes.

Developing an Understanding

The language that we use to describe persons with disabilities can reflect the attitudes that people have towards persons with disabilities; it can also influence the way people perceive and treat persons with disabilities (Auslander & Gold, 1999). Not only that, language can positively or negatively affect people’s self-perception—the way persons with disabilities think of themselves (Haller, Dorries & Rahn, 2006).

Language can misrepresent and stereotype disability. To say “a person in a wheelchair”, “confined to a wheelchair” or “bound to a wheelchair” isn’t accurate. They aren’t always in a wheelchair and it implies that people who are “confined” or "bound" to a wheelchair are tied or trapped when in fact wheelchairs increase movement, mobility, speed and ability (Haller, Dorries & Hahn, 2006). A person “uses a wheelchair” as a mobility device and a way to get around.

Some words might be considered well-meaning, like “physically challenged,” the “able disabled", “handicapable,” and “special needs/people/children", but these words actually demean persons with disabilities, suggesting that they are less-than (Linton, 1998).

Language is powerful and as a media maker, it is important to be mindful that media is consumed by millions of people every day. Ableist language is the casual use of language, sometimes intentionally and often inadvertently that refers to a person with a disability. This casual use of language is very common, very negative and stigmatizes people with disabilities.


According to the Ontario Human Right Commission, “Ableism” is defined as a “belief system, in the same category as racism, sexism or ageism, that sees persons with disabilities as being less worthy of respect and consideration, less able to contribute and participate, or of less inherent value than others. Ableism may be conscious or unconscious, and may be part of institutions, systemic or part of the culture of society. It can limit the opportunities of persons with disabilities and reduce their inclusion in the life of their communities” (Ontario Human Rights Commission, 2016).

In this video, Dylan Marron from Seriously, TV defines and unpacks the concept of ableism.

Image: Best Practice

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In consultation with people with disabilities and lived experience, the Inclusive Language Guide consists of suggested words and phrases that are best practice for media makers when talking about accessibility and disability.