Find a professional editor in your field or genre, or in your language, with our Editors Directory.


by Glenine Hamlyn AE

Presentation by Graeme Innes AM at the IPEd conference.

By naming his presentation ‘It’s only words’, Graeme Innes AM — disability advocate, board director, author, former Australian Disability Discrimination Commissioner, word nerd and blind since birth — meant more than a nod to the Bee Gees. Language, he said, is much more than words. 

Ableism refers to attitudes that devalue people with disabilities and limit their potential. Ableism is reflected in language.

Racism, sexism and ableism intersect, and all involve socio-economic disadvantage. The cost of racial discrimination in Australia has been put at 3.6 per cent of GDP ($A44.9 billion). Currently, 21 per cent of Australians live with a disability; hence, the cost of discrimination against them must be significant, as would the overall economic cost of sexism. Women with a disability fare worse than men. 

An alarming 48 per cent of employees with a disability have experienced discrimination or harrassment, often in combination with ableist language. Why would we choose ableist language? Maybe we just don’t think about it. We should do these things:

  1. Focus on the person, not the disability — speak of ‘a person with a disability’, or ‘a person who is deaf’.
  2. Avoid patronising people. A person living with a disability is not ‘inspirational’ just because they live with a disability, nor are they ‘special’ for simply getting through the day. ‘Special’ (special schools, special needs) implies segregation and being second-rate. Euphemisms such as ‘differently abled’ are also patronising.
  3. Stop regarding people with disabilities as objects of pity, ‘suffering from’ or ‘afflicted by’ their disability. Remove emotion from the language by referring to the condition: ‘developed multiple sclerosis’, ‘has depression’. 
  4. Avoid saying people are ‘confined’ to wheelchairs or ‘wheelchair-bound’. For a person with a disability, a wheelchair may be liberating. 
  5. Think about the negative imagery we use — for example, calling someone ‘insane’ or ‘crazy’; saying something ‘fell on deaf ears’, or that someone has a ‘blind spot’; or being ‘paralysed’ or ‘crippled’ by something. The message is that people living with disabilities are lesser individuals. 
  6. Change the focus from ‘disability’ to ‘accessibility’, a more inclusive term that incorporates the needs of a whole range of people. Note the absurdity of the phrase ‘disabled toilets’.

Editors can make a difference by altering ableist language. In fiction, people with a disability are often portrayed as villains. We can help change this.  

Editors can help to make websites more accessible, avoiding:

  • frustrating click-throughs 
  • images without alternative text, which the screen reader interprets as ‘image … image … ‘
  • asking the user whether they want to access cookies (set the default as ‘essential’) 
  • making users sign in to access content 
  • spamming users with emails
  • making users watch advertisements 
  • Captcha (excludes screen-reader users)
  • menu items that cannot be opened using the keyboard
  • blank lines inserted as paragraph breaks.

See this list on Graeme’s blog

All users of a website need to be involved in its design from the beginning. 

Graeme cited some resources and names: 

Australian Network on Disabilities; People with Disabilities Australia; The Attitude Foundation; ABC Ramp Up.

Stella Young (TED talks), Nas Campanella (ABC reporter), Alistair McEwan (Disability Royal Commission), Steve Obeid, Kurt Fernley, Dylan Alcott. 

Glenine Hamlyn AE is a freelance editor and NAATI-Certified Translator of German into English. 

Mr Innes’ involvement is with the assistance of the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund.

Copyright Agency Cultural Fund