Disability Inclusion Starts with Communicating with Dignity

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) programs are, by definition, meant to be inclusive, yet many of them overlook people with disabilities. According to a recent study conducted by Mercer in partnership with Global Disability Inclusion, people with disabilities make up fully 15% of the global population, but this substantial group is often left out of diversity initiatives and conversations about workplace inclusion.Even our day-to-day communications can reveal a surprising lack of sensitivity to people with disabilities, unintentional though it may be. While few people in the workplace ever set out to purposely offend or marginalize individuals, it occurs more often than it should. If, like in many organizations, your DEI program is getting new attention, now might be a good time to benchmark your disability practices and address communicating and interacting in ways that respect the dignity of people with disabilities.

Defining disability

A person with a disability is someone with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, has a record of such an impairment, or is regarded as having such an impairment. Disabilities can be visible or invisible, and a person with a disability may choose not to disclose it for a variety of reasons. Inclusion in the workplace is about recognizing our common humanity and it is essential to remember that a person is not defined by a disability; it is simply part of their life.

How should that understanding inform the way we communicate? When you are aware that someone has a disability, describe that individual as a person first, and then a person with a condition or disability. For example, you can say someone is a person with diabetes, instead of “a diabetic,” to avoid solely defining that individual by a health condition. You can also choose to focus on their achievements, abilities and individual qualities and on their roles as parents, colleagues, and friends. Connecting on the human level this way can foster greater understanding and offer deep rewards. Learn how to become an ally to people with disabilities: Be a friend and a listener, and stay open-minded, willing to recognize your own prejudices.

Check your vocabulary

As stated above, not all disabilities are visible. That means it is not enough to be mindful of what you say only when you know you’re in the company of someone with a disability. Rather, work to expand your dignified terminology and remove offensive words from your vocabulary altogether.

Words with Dignity Avoid these words / Remove from vocabulary
Person with a disability, disabled, able-bodied Cripple, handicapped, handicap, invalid, normal
Person who has, person with Victim, afflicted with, suffers from, stricken with
Person who uses a wheelchair, Wheelchair user Restricted, confined to a wheelchair, wheelchair bound
Person with hearing loss, does not voice for themselves, non-vocal Deaf mute, deaf and dumb
Disabled since birth, born with Birth defect
Psychiatric history, psychiatric disability, emotional disorder, mental illness Crazy, insane, lunatic, mental patient, wacko
Intellectual or cognitive disability, learning disability/ developmental delay, ADD, ADHD Mental retardation, slow, retard, lazy, stupid, underachiever
Accessible parking, restroom, or seating Handicapped parking, restrooms, or seating


Consider investing in regular training for disability inclusion, with special focus on effective communication with dignity. Ensure vendors and carrier partners not only communicate with dignity, but also that they have proper engagement tools and support for individuals with disabilities. For example, does a digital navigation solution have access for someone with a vision impairment? Do materials come in alternative formats to allow those with hearing or visual impairments to access? Does the language and imagery within employee / member facing communications feel inclusive? Do the materials have someone included with a visible disability, such as a wheelchair user?

These efforts will bring the greatest rewards as part of a long-term strategy for talent recruitment that is inclusive of individuals with disabilities. It is an important part of your organization’s commitment to an equitable workplace—and will help realize the well-documented advantages that more diverse organizations have in creating opportunities and solving problems.

Kelly Allen
by Kelly Allen

Senior Associate Vendor Operations Manager | Cross Specialty Operations

Michael Garrett
by Michael Garrett

Principal, Total Health Management, Mercer

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