- Even companies committed to diversity, equity and inclusion may be getting accessibility wrong for people with disabilities. The missing piece? Inclusive language.
- In a September 2021 audit, B2B research firm Forrester found that many companies shy away from DEI conversations for fear of "othering" people. While the report mostly talks about front-facing DEI commitments, employers also can apply Forrester’s accessibility tips to internal communications.
- While inclusion may always be top of mind, some employers use October, which is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, as a time to recommit to disability-focused DEI initiatives.
Forrester researchers Gina Bhawalkar and Senem Biyikli said that "inclusive language" should "acknowledge the full range of human diversity with respect to ability, gender identity, language, race, socioeconomic status, and other characteristics."
To achieve this, company leaders can ask themselves key questions. Forrester suggested asking: "Do you use words that people can easily understand?", "Have you checked that the words you use are not exclusionary or offensive to anyone?" and "Did you consider the needs and feelings of your audience when writing this content?"
Regarding the first question, one resource Forrester recommends is plainlanguage.gov. The resource breaks down the Plain Writing Act of 2010. Communications can be measured against this public standard of concise, organized and conversational language.
Ideas around "exclusionary" or "offensive" words may not be universal due to differing lived experiences. However, the report said, "many words that we use in our daily conversations are exclusionary, have roots in oppression, and reproduce implicit bias." Perhaps most pertinent to the disability awareness conversation are the use of "normal" and "blind spot." These words and phrases contribute to stigmas around disabilities or mental illness, the report said.
Another resource is the comprehensive inclusive language guide from 18F, a subsect of the federal government’s General Services Administration. A pro tip from 18F: avoid describing people as "disabled," "handicapped" or "confined to a wheelchair." The agency also recommends avoiding terms that contribute to mental health stigma, including "crazy," "dumb," "lame," "insane," "psycho," "schizophrenic" or "stupid." Along with "blind spot," it also discourages "tone deaf."
Coincidentally, this year’s NDEAM theme is "America’s Recovery: Powered by Inclusion." As per the U.S. Department of Labor, this year’s goal is to ensure "people with disabilities have full access to employment and community involvement during the national recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic."
While thoughtfulness around ability and disability may have slipped through the cracks at an organization, a focus on language can help create an inclusive experience.