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Accessibility Primer Part 1: Language and Models

Ashleigh Lodge
Working in software development, business analysis and QA as the Application Development Manager @ Neovation. Currently focusing on a11y on the web.
・4 min read

What is accessibility and why does it matter? Part 1 of a series introducing accessibility, assistive devices and technology, inclusive design, and web accessibility standards and tools. Will include asides on why language matters, the medical vs social models of disability, why Comic Sans isn't the worst thing ever, and fun with acronyms - WCAG, POUR, ARIA and more!

Part 0: Glossary - UPDATED!


Language tells us a lot about our culture, and our traditions, and our assumptions about life and everything around us. In many respects, language is the lens that allows us to see the world, and so many of us don’t see things that aren’t coded in our language.

Ronald Schaefer, "Language is the 'lens' to our understanding", 2014

Language matters, and it's especially important that people are able to determine their own labels. Like other marginalized groups, people with disabilities (PwD) have fought hard to be addressed and labeled on our own terms and that work and effort must be respected. Of course, if someone requests a specific term or label to use for themselves, it is crucial to respect and support their choice. Everyone's lived experience is different and what may be the most appropriate descriptor for one person is a horrific slur to another.

Person-first Language and Identity-first Language

Person-first language is meant to avoid dehumanization by placing the person before the condition. Consider the examples of "the disabled", "disabled people" and "people with disabilities". For the first example, you're left asking yourself, "the disabled what?", as personhood is completely removed from the description. In our world of technology, perhaps the speaker was referring to a button or setting? The lack of clarity is another reason this phrasing has fallen out of favour.

In the second example (disabled people), the disability of a person is given prominence over their personhood, which is a particularly common experience of those who travel with a carer. Temporarily able-bodied (TAB) people tend to notice and react to or interact with the carer, instead of the person being supported by the carer. For instance, someone may ask the carer "what's wrong with him?", assuming that the person isn't capable of understanding and responding for themselves (not to mention being horrifically rude in general!).

The third example (people with disabilities) is preferred terminology for many individuals and groups, because it puts the person front and center and only then mentions disability as a descriptor or modifier. This can be a difficult concept for native English speakers, as we are used to talking about the red car (instead of the car that is red), but it is familiar to those who speak languages such as French and Spanish (ie. voiture rouge and carro rojo).

Identity-first language on the other hand, emphasizes that the condition or disability is an integral part of the person, not something that can be separated out. Identity-first language is popular in the autistic community, where people generally prefer to be described as an autistic person/individual, or simply as autistic. This mirrors English terms used for sexuality, race, and ethnicity, such as Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual [person] or Somali-Canadian [person].

Person-centered language can be considered an evolution of person-first language or a melding of person-first and identity-first. It emphasizes the individual preferences of the person being referred to over strict language rules and guidelines. For instance, while Laila has asked that you use Deaf and Deaf person (identity-first language), Jane prefers that you use person with dyslexia (people-first language).

Medical vs Social Models of Disability

How we approach and frame the concept of disability can also affect our language. Looking at the medical model of disability, a disability is a defect that must be repaired. By involving doctors and surgeons and prescriptions and physical therapy, this brokenness can be fixed, and the person can return to society as a normal and fully functional member. For those who have never experienced it, imagine going through life being constantly told, explicitly and implicitly, that you are broken, wrong, not contributing to society, not correct, not acceptable. Considering disability from this perspective is how terminology like "disabled person" came to prominence - someone's disability is the first and most important thing about them, an indication that they don't fit within society's norms.

Contrast that with the social model of disability which states that disability is caused not by brokenness or non-standard bodies and minds, but by systemic barriers in society, preventing PwD from full participation. For example, consider a wheelchair user attempting to access a building. Are they disabled due to their spinal injury, or are they disabled by the fact that the only door is the top of a flight of stairs?

Wheelchair user is the preferred term over wheelchair bound. Not all people who use a wheelchair are restricted to it 100% of time - someone may need their chair on certain days (experiencing a fibromyalgia flare), or they may need it due to the length of time they'll be standing or walking that day. Additionally, wheelchair bound suggests a limitation or lack, but many wheelchair users see freedom, mobility and self-sufficiency in a chair.

The social model also includes negative attitudes and exclusion by society as factors of disability. Thoughts and statements such as "they're faking, they don't really need that parking spot" or "high contrast designs/themes are a waste of time" are more disabling than the conditions (such as arthritis and vision loss/blindness) that prompt those accommodations.

As the World Health Organization's definition of disability notes: "[Disability] is a complex phenomenon, reflecting the interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives." And that's something we need to think about when considering accessibility.

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