Rethinking the language we use to foster a disability-inclusive workplace
Build deep belonging with a fresh take on “inclusive” language we’ve accepted for too long.
When it comes to creating an inclusive workplace – words matter. Disability-inclusive language matters. The language we use often sets the tone for how comfortable and welcomed people with disabilities feel at work.
Negatively coded language around disability often doesn’t arise from a conscious desire to be hurtful or diminish others but rather from the fossilization of old-fashioned terminology and processes that are not modernized and reviewed as often as they should be.
“Describes seemingly run-of-the-mill words or phrases that have alternative, offensive meanings, much like microaggressions. Most often, coded language is targeted at people of color, minorities, women, and members of the LGBTQ+ community, and is used with the goal of portraying that group of people negatively and upholding systemic oppression.”
The language of othering
Take, for example, a word that is commonly used in the recruitment process for disabled candidates – “disclosure,” principally the disclosing of one’s disability.
Given its association with secrets and revelations, “disclosure” is hardly an apt term to reflect the proud assertion of one’s identity. At best, this use implies a necessity to confirm that one is different when contrasted with accepted societal norms.
Disclosing a disability, in itself, is no bad thing if commonly understood to simply describe the act of communicating with an employer about one’s disability or health condition. Though such practice provides an opportunity for unconscious bias to seep through, it equally offers up a platform for open and honest communication.
Yet, the word itself feels unnecessarily weighty and overloaded for this environment, fostering an avoidable sense of awkwardness and anxiety for both parties.
Similar examples can be seen with the use of terms like “accommodations” or “requirements.” These are often used to refer to specific provisions a candidate or employee might need to undertake their job. A typical example might be screen reading or magnification software to help individuals with sight impairments use a computer.
Is this truly an “accommodation” when all it does is reflect the process by which somebody is going about their daily life?
An accommodation implies a favor, a dispensation. In reality, anyone who has ever listened to the extraordinary speed at which blind people are often able to listen to and process voice output on a device might well consider it more of a superpower. At the very least, it simply represents a different way of learning and interacting with information technology.
Angela Matthews, Head of Policy and Advice at the London-based Business Disability Forum, expands further on these unhelpful descriptors that individuals with disabilities have to put up with when navigating the workplace:
“When an employer is saying that they will make accommodations for us, it makes us feel like we are being demanding, like we are asking for something in addition to what others have. When, in fact, we simply do things differently,” says Matthews.
Addressing decisions on disclosure, she further adds, “Terms such as disclosure are just too formal.”
She continues, “Disabled employees are telling us that this language is almost pulling them outside of the inclusion agenda entirely. Disability is being seen in the same bracket as things that HR has to check to make sure someone is eligible to be part of the organization in the first place.”
Warm and welcoming
When asked what a more positive lexicon around disability recruitment and retention might look like Matthews responds, “Many of our member organizations are telling us that they want to be authentic and use language that is warm and welcoming.”
“One of our member organizations recently sought our advice. So, we took the recruiter back to how they want the candidate or employee to feel. Eventually, the employer explained to us, ‘When people come to an interview or assessment with us, I just want them to love it. I want to make them feel like they genuinely want to work in this organization.’
As a result, they changed their wording related to the interview process to: ‘We want everyone to enjoy this interview, and be able to come away thinking that they’ve done their best. Therefore, if we can do anything to help deliver that experience for you, please let us know.’”
Focusing on the paradigm shift businesses need to make, Matthews says, “It’s just about using more compassionate language. We want to see a move away from very compliance, legal-based language and more towards employers basing their policies on the values of their organization.”
Hack Refresh your recruiting and internal vocabulary by vocalizing how you want applicants/colleagues to feel rather than relying on outdated language.
A holistic approach
Of course, the use of disability-inclusive language should not just be restricted to recruitment. Disability-inclusive language needs to be embedded across all aspects of corporate messaging.
Business Disability Forum’s CEO Diane Lightfoot paints a picture of what this failure to join the dots could look like.
“We are starting to see great drives coming out of HR and D&I that have got the language around disability-inclusion just right, but this might sit next to an advertising campaign saying ‘Our people are the fittest of the fit’ or something along those lines,” she explains.
“This really doesn’t take a joined-up approach to the overall language and brand communications and therefore undermines those pockets of good practice. If you’ve got a campaign around World Mental Health Day, for example, and you’re trying to encourage people to talk about their mental health and share when they’re struggling — if all your other organizational messages are around who’s hit the biggest sales target or promoting a culture of presenteeism, then you have to wonder which message people are going to believe.” Lightfoot says.
Ultimately, the hope must be that pushing warm, welcoming disability-inclusive language throughout both the recruitment and retention cycles can lead to wider organizational and societal benefits that turn out to be far greater than the sum of their parts.
Getting started is straightforward and easy. HR professionals need to take a step back and review the language embedded in their recruitment process with a fresh pair of eyes and a questioning mindset. Don’t make assumptions about certain terms being OK to use because they’ve been around forever. In fact, that’s all the more reason to re-evaluate them.
For further help and advice – visit the website of the Business Disability Forum.
Gus is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to Forbes specializing in disability inclusion. Previously, he has also written on issues affecting people with disabilities for a number of UK newspapers including The Times, The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent and the Daily Mail. His interest in exploring all areas concerning the lived experience of people with disabilities stems from being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at the age of 26.