The Language of Equality

Language is (potentially) powerful.  Words can motivate and mystify, inspire and intimidate.  It was said of Churchill that he mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.  So are attempts to change attitudes by suggesting different ways of saying things worthwhile?


Take disability.  The way society has typically defined disability in the past is in terms of what is known as the individual model (sometimes called the medical or charity model). The individual model treats disability in terms of the individual, the condition which they have and the things they can’t do. For example: John is a person with a disability. He suffers from Multiple Sclerosis (MS); he can’t walk, so he can’t take the bus. As long as his condition can’t be cured he is regarded as a helpless victim in need of pity and charity


The social model was developed by disabled people and it says that having an impairment is neither positive or negative – it just is. John doesn’t suffer from an impairment, he has an impairment. Disability arises because society is set up to meet the needs of able bodied people.  John has MS.  Most buses are designed to suit people who can walk, so John is disabled by inaccessible buses

Citizens Advice is committed to equality.  Under the Equality Act 2010 It is against the law to discriminate against various groups – including disabled people.  However the Act considers disabled people in terms of their condition and tends to promote the individual model.  CAB advisers provide advice in relation to the rights of individuals under the Act.  They are encouraged to promote the social model in the way they do so – including the way they express themselves.  Here are some examples

Individual model

Social model

  • He suffers from Downs Syndrome, paraplegia, chronic asthma
  • She is confined to a wheelchair, wheelchair bound
  • Person/people with disabilities
  • Mental health sufferer
  • The blind, the deaf
  • She is mentally handicapped, retarded
  • Special rights, special needs, special services
  • She can’t use the computer because she’s blind
  • She is physically disabled, crippled
  •  He has Downs Syndrome, paraplegia, chronic asthma
  • She is a wheelchair user
  • Disabled person/people
  • Person with mental health issues
  • Blind / Deaf people.  People with visual/hearing impairments
  • She has learning difficulties
  • Rights, needs, services, reasonable adjustments
  • She is blind. She can’t use the computer because it is not accessible
  • She has a mobility impairment


If you are disabled and feel you have experienced discrimination your local CAB may be able to help you.  Remember too that you can be discriminated against by association – for example

An employer disciplines a woman because she has had to take time off to care for her disabled child. Other workers who have had similar amounts of time off work have not been disciplined. This would be counted as direct disability discrimination.

The Equality Act also offers protection against discrimination because of age, gender identity and gender reassignment, marriage or civil partnership (in employment only), pregnancy and maternity, sex, race, religion or belief and sexual orientation


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