Language and terminology vary across countries and cultures. Consult people from different at risk groups and their self-representative organisations at local or national level on which terminology they prefer when writing and publishing documents and communicating with the community in meetings or trainings.
Sensitive language is attained when women, men, girls and boys with and without disabilities and from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds are addressed as persons of equal value, dignity, integrity and respect.
General principles of sensitive language are:
Recognising and challenging stereotypes.
Ensure all groups of the population are made visible.
Be respectful and avoid trivialisation and subordination.
For gender sensitive language:
- Do not assign gender where gender is unknown or irrelevant.
- Use both, the female and male form, instead of the male as the standard form.
- Avoid language which paints one gender, often women or girls, as inferior or belittles them.
In cases where gender-specific language is not needed to shed light on key aspects of the issue, a good strategy is to avoid the use of language altogether that refers explicitly or implicitly to only one gender (gender-neutral language). For example by using the third person plural: “they”, “them”, etc.
For disability-sensitive language use ‘person-first language, which puts the person before his or her impairment (health condition): “persons with disabilities” instead of "the disabled", or 'a student who is blind', “a woman with fistula”, “a person who uses a wheelchair or ‘wheelchair user”.
Why? Disability is not a defined characteristic but only one of several identities or aspects of a person. Phrases like "the disabled" or "the amputee" focus on a condition or impairment and not on the person who is affected by it.
If necessary to distinguish between different types of disabilities, use this terminology:
Refer to a person with a visual impairment as a “blind person” or a “person with low vision”.
Refer to a person with a physical impairment as a “person with physical disabilities”.
Refer to a person with a hearing impairment as a “deaf person” or a “person who is hard of hearing”.
Refer to a person with an intellectual impairment or a mental health condition as a “person with an intellectual disability” or a “person with mental health disability / psychosocial disability”.
When talking about illnesses and diseases, avoid medical labels. Rather talk about a person that has diabetes than a diabetic patient for example.
Use the term “older persons” to refer to people of old age, instead of “the elderly” or “senior citizens”.
European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE). Toolkit on Gender-sensitive Communication. 2018