Understanding learning disability terminology

Rosie Clarke, Head of Inclusion and Diversity Services (North), highlights why it is important to use the correct terminology to describe learning disabled people and shares advice on what language to use.

Keep reading to learn more.

Learning Disability Week takes place between the 20-26 June 2022. It is a celebration of the achievements of learning disabled people and an opportunity to raise awareness of the barriers learning disabled people face in society.

Before working for Inclusive Employers, I spent a few years working in community arts organisations, often with learning disabled people. We used creative workshops to help people learn and practice independence skills and express their emotions when they struggled to articulate them.

I loved this work and it set me on a path to working in inclusion and diversity. Although I now support organisations with all underrepresented and marginalised groups, I still have a passion for disability inclusion.

One of the things that stops non-disabled people from being active allies to learning disabled people is not knowing what to say or what learning disability terminology is appropriate.

What do you call people with disabilities?

Firstly, when talking about an individual or a group known to you, ask them what terms they prefer or be led by the terms they are using. Like with any protected characteristic group there will be individual differences and preferences around language.

If you don’t know the people you are talking about then terms such as disabled people, or more specifically learning disabled people, are appropriate.

Why is it important to get learning disability terminology correct?

There is a lot of outdated terminology for learning disabled people. In the UK, and globally, we do not have a positive history with learning disabled people.

We traditionally used to treat learning disabled people as outcasts, and they were often housed in what was referred to at the time as asylums. Like many marginalised people, the way we spoke about learning disabled people was derogatory, negative and gave the message that they were not equal to non-disabled people.

Although this history can be difficult to think about it is important to understand why positive disability terminology matters.

In 2022, the large majority of learning disabled people either live with family, friends or in specialist independent living centers which provide them with the ability to control their own lives, work, finances and decisions but have additional support available as and when it is required.

Many learning disabled people are in employment and as a society, we have a much more positive outlook. But we still must recognise that the use of inappropriate language can have a detrimental effect on learning disabled people’s equality, inclusion and mental health. This is why positive words for disability are important.

The benefits of having a disability language guide

If your customers, service users or employees have or may have disabilities then it’s important that you provide information to your colleagues about how best to talk about disability.

In general, we would advise against writing a list of disability terminology that people should not use, as this will draw attention to derogatory terms, can teach people new offensive terms, cause offence and make people feel uncomfortable.

Instead have a list of positive words for disability including learning disability, learning difference and mobility disability.

It’s also important to consider the words used to describe a disabled person’s experience of their disability. Phrases such as ‘suffers from’ are judgmental, biased and offensive. The majority of disabled people would not describe themselves as ‘suffering’ but instead ‘living with’ or ‘has X disability’. Neutral or positive language is always the most inclusive approach.  

How Inclusive Employers can help

If you are a member and need support in designing a language guide, delivering disability awareness training or advice on recruiting and retaining learning disabled colleagues contact your account manager. Non-members please get in touch to find out how we can support you and learn more about how you can benefit from our membership offering.