Sensitive written and spoken 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, with dignity, integrity and respect.
Consult people from different at-risk groups and their representative organisations at local or national level on which terminology they prefer. Use sensitive language when writing and publishing documents and communicating with the community in meetings or trainings.
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 the female and male form, instead of the male as the standard form, and 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”.
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. Avoid using the term ‘disabled-friendly’ to describe physical structures or services that are accessible for persons with disabilities; use ‘accessible’ instead.
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.
- When talking about people who are exposed to very stressful situations, avoid labelling them as “traumatized” or focusing narrowly on traumatic experiences while recognising those who are distressed and need support.
For age-sensitive language, use the term “older persons”, instead of “the elderly” or “senior citizens”.
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