Accessibility and Language

Paving the way to creating greater inclusivity starts with language. In this section, learn how you can  avoid ableism amongst staff and help them develop a more inclusive vocabulary. 

A woman sits in her wheelchair at a table, facing a laptop and waving at the screen with a smile on her face

What is Ableism?

Ableism is a learned behaviour that oppresses and discriminates against people with disabilities based on the idea that non-disabled people are normal and superior. It is similar to racism, sexism, and homophobia because it places one group of people above another and negatively impacts the lives of people in marginalised groups.

Examples of ableism are frequently found in common vocabulary and people often do not realise how harmful our language or behaviour can be because it is ingrained into our culture.

For instance, the following phrases are ableist:

“The blind leading the blind.”
This idiom is used to say that someone who is unsure what they are doing is helping someone else in the same position, but it implies that a blind person is incompetent. By using this phrase, people are reinforcing inaccurate stereotypes about blind people and their ability to live an independent life.

Instead use another idiom, “The helpless being led by the clueless,” which gives the same message without implying that blind people are incompetent.

“Sorry, I have to have everything organised, I’m so OCD.”
People often equate OCD only with being hyper-organised or picky; however, it is a real medical condition. By incorrectly using the medical condition to describe a person without the condition, people are reframing the meaning of the term and diminishing its true meaning.

Instead use adjectives like organised, meticulous, or focused.

“They are confined to a wheelchair”
This phrase adds a negative connotation to using a wheelchair. Many wheelchair users see wheelchairs as an instrument of their freedom, rather than restrictive.

Instead, say that they use a wheelchair, are a wheelchair-user, or that they require a wheelchair.

“That’s insane”
The word ‘insane’ is a slang term that often refers to something wild or reckless; however, the original use of the word was to refer to someone who has a mental or psychiatric disability. Both usages can be harmful to people who have a mental or psychiatric disability as they are inherently negative and carry a lot of historical weight. Other examples of this include: lame, psycho, and spaz (a shortened form of Spastic Paralysis, an older and derogatory term for Cerebral Palsy).

Instead of crazy, use adjectives like wild, confusing, unpredictable, impulsive, reckless, fearless, or out of control.

Ableism can manifest in other forms, such as feeling uncomfortable talking to disabled people or making assumptions about a disabled person’s ability or

Developing a more inclusive vocabulary

There are now plenty of resources, many of which were written by Deaf and disabled people, to support a change in your organisation to more inclusive language. For example, the Enabling Participation comic by Toby Morris was drawn based on a research project by BMC Public Health and highlights accounts of everyday ableism young disabled New Zealanders encounter. BMCPublic Health says that they “hope this comic will invite and challenge able-bodied people to think and act differently.”

The key to improving our language is respect. Talk to Deaf and disabled people about their personal language preferences because they might prefer different terms than you expect. Yet, while a specific person may prefer a different term, it is best to continue using the generally accepted terminology for the wider community.

Similarly, your language should be paired with respectful conduct. Even when you are using inclusive language, you can make someone feel alienated by talking to a disabled person’s companion instead of them or assuming what a disabled person needs instead of listening to them.

As you become more knowledgeable about ableist language, talk to the people around you about it and begin removing ableist language in your work culture. In museums, the key places to review are areas where we communicate with the public – such as labels, signs, and online content – and in our back-of-house documentation – policy, operating procedures, and interoffice communication.

One example that most museums may experience is ableism in nomenclature, the terms used for cataloguing. While the inclusive term ‘people with disabilities’ is included in the Library of Congress Thesaurus for Graphic Materials, a common source of nomenclature, other ableist terms are as well. For instance, if a user searches ‘disfigured persons’ the term will still appear, even though it is no longer endorsed by the Thesaurus. Its discontinued status is only mentioned when the user clicks on the term’s page. is still listed by the Thesaurus and its discontinued status is not immediately clear. The term disfigured is stigmatised and is best to be avoided

Ableism can also be hidden in the descriptions for terms. The Art & Architecture Thesaurus’ description for the term ‘crutches’, which is not an ableist term, is “staffs or supports to assist a lame or infirm person in walking, especially those with a cross-piece at one end to fit under the armpit.” Both ‘lame’ and ‘infirm’ are ableist terms that have negative connotations toward physically disabled people.

Questioning terms and related descriptions is one way to remove ableism from museum vocabulary.

Common Deaf and Disability Terms

Below are some examples of appropriate and inappropriate Deaf and Disability terms. This is by no means an exhaustive list, so a few resources have been included in the resources section.

It is important to note that some members of the Deaf community do not consider themselves to be disabled, which is why the phrase “Deaf and disabled” has been used throughout these pages.

Some useful terms to know are:

Disabled, person with a disabilityThe disabled, handicapped, deformed,
special needs, cripple, defective.
Non-disabledAble-bodied, normal, typical
Blind, blind person; or person with low visionThe blind
Deaf (a person who is deaf and participates in Deaf culture), deaf (the audiological condition);
or person who is hard of hearing
The deaf, deaf and dumb, deaf-mute
Little person; person of short statureDwarf, midget
Person with a learning disabilityRetard, Mentally retarded, stupid, simple
Wheelchair userWheelchair-bound, confined to a wheelchair