Jack Garfinkel
May 29 · 3 min read

I’ve been inundated with literally two questions about language and disability from people working in government.

Content people want to know the best way to write about things. Is it ‘people with disabilities’ or ‘disabled people’? I love it when people ask that question, because it shows that they’re willing to spend time trying to do the right thing. And that’s the only way things are going to get better.

Three people meet before testing content for Scope. There is a screen in the background.

At Scope, we do have answers on how to write about disability. We say ‘disabled people’ because we follow the social model of disability. This lets you look at people’s conditions, impairments and needs. It stops you from thinking of disabilities as something people ‘have’; setting up inaccessible services disables them. But what you’re saying is more important than how you say it.

Medical and legal terms feel safe, but don’t help

Legal and medical language is meant to be useful. They’re both professions we look to for information we can trust. If you want to make your service accessible, find out what the people using it need. Checking if someone’s condition falls under the Equality Act will not help you do this.

A legal approach is normally only helpful if you’re trying to help someone to work out what their legal rights are. It excludes a lot of people. Also, only offering the minimum support so that your organisation is not culpable is not a good look.

The Act (mostly) doesn’t look to specific conditions, it takes a functional approach. That’s a good thing, but it’s also fuzzy and excludes people with real needs. Someone on crutches for 6 months can still find it hard to go up and down stairs and wouldn’t necessarily come under the act.

Dark service design patterns

In UX design, a dark pattern is a way of tricking someone into doing something which they might not want to do, but benefits the organisation providing the service.

Making the people who use your service provide their medical history so that you can ration the support and adjustments you might offer does not help them. It’s a dark service design pattern, even if it’s not built on bad intent. You don’t need to know why they need an adjustment, or how long they’ve needed adjustments like that. As long as you know what they need.

Focus on goals and needs

If your goal is to make your service accessible, ask people what they need. People will need things you have not thought of.

Include a short description of what your service involves. Some examples of adjustments can help. Give enough examples to show that you’re happy to make adjustments, but not so many that people feel like they’re excluded because the thing they need is not there.

Let’s say you’re writing a form for a service which involves a meeting with an adviser. You’re designing the sign-up form. With good intent, you might start here:

HTML version of ‘reasonable adjustments’ form (JSFiddle)

But if you want to get straight to the information that is useful, the information that will make your service accessible to the largest number of people, this is better:

HTML version of ‘accessibility’ form (JSFiddle)

Content at Scope

We’re Scope, the disability equality charity. We won’t stop until we achieve a society where all disabled people enjoy equality and fairness.

Jack Garfinkel

Written by

Senior Content Designer for the charity Scope. We make content for disabled people and their families.

Content at Scope

We’re Scope, the disability equality charity. We won’t stop until we achieve a society where all disabled people enjoy equality and fairness.

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