Language is extremely important to us all. 

Language isn’t just about the words we use but about the attitudes behind those words. We want to be sensitive but at the same time make sure sensitivity doesn’t get in the way of providing the support people need. We want to stay up to date with social changes in language but at the same time be inclusive of the language everyone uses so nobody misses out because of terminology.

Language around disability is sometimes contradictory but at it’s heart it should be personal to each individual. If the individual is comfortable with a term they use to describe themselves, then we will always try to adopt that language.

This guide is a work in progress, a way for us to record how we communicate and the language we use. We don’t always get it right and you can let us know if you think we can improve on this. 

A fundamental – the social model of disability

The core of our language on disability is also around our entire model of supporting young people – we hold to the social model of disability which recognises that it is society that disables people – barriers exist that need to be overcome, not because of a person’s medical diagnosis or condition or ability but because of the way we have ordered society. Removing those barriers gives disabled people the chance to fully participate in the same way as everyone else. At Scouts that’s what we do – remove barriers so young people can take part in everything our programme has to offer. At the heart of that is recognising young disabled people can do everything the Scout programme offers – we put in place the support to overcome the societal barriers.

The way we frame the conversation

We talk about things being accessible – e.g. accessible toilet, accessible parking, accessible transport. This is so we are inclusive of all those who require accessible facilities, not just those who use a wheelchair.

We talk about supporting young people rather than caring for them because we are providing whatever support the young person needs to fully participate on the same basis as all other Scouts. Likewise we talk about a young person’s strengths more than the support needs they have.

Always talk about the positive not the deficit – a young person uses a wheelchair, they aren’t confined to one, nor are they wheelchair-bound. They have a disability, they don’t suffer from it. Their medical condition is a part of them, but it doesn’t define them. 

We talk about disabled young people because of the social model of disability which recognises people are disabled by the society they live in not by any impairment they have. However we fully recognise some people prefer “young person with a disability” and in truth sometimes we write that too! Language is personal and we’ll always try to go with whatever an individual prefers. We don’t use the term ‘differently abled’ because we know many people find this patronising and it obscures the real barriers that disabled people still face.

Similarly for young people with autism we recognise some prefer to be autistic people, others a person with ASD, others a person on the autistic spectrum. We’ll go with whatever they prefer as an individual.

The opposite of disabled is non-disabled, not able bodied. We avoid normal – nobody likes to be thought of as not normal.


Planning support

In our support plans for each young person we concentrate on strengths and interests as much as needs and requirements. That’s not to say a person’s care needs aren’t important, but they don’t define the person. Finding out what a young person is scared off or really dislikes is important alongside allergies and personal care support.

That said, we have detailed support plans because we know providing the right support is important. These are written in plain English rather than jargon because we are Scouts not a hospital. Plain English is in itself inclusive. 

There’s a really good style guide from the NHS here which outlines some of the thinking behind using common language rather than medical jargon. It’s why we talk about pee and poo in personal care plans rather than anything more technical – everyone knows what is being talked about that way!


Some tips on communication and behaviour

Scope, the charity for people with cerebral palsy in England, ran a very successful campaign called End the Awkward which sought to make people more comfortable in discussing disability. We’ve picked up some of their top tips and added our own here:

  • Speak to disabled people as you would speak to anyone else – don’t talk down or assume they aren’t capable of holding a conversation

  • Don’t be too precious about language – we can get tied up in knots if we’re so worried about saying the wrong thing we don’t actually have a decent chat with people

  • Try to avoid being overly careful around phrases you might think could cause offence – for example “did you see that…” to a person with a visual impairment is still a normal turn of phrase. “Let’s walk over there” isn’t offensive to a person who uses a wheelchair. See point 2 above and carry on as normal!

  • Ask what help the young person needs and support them – don’t wade in and do things for them. In Scouts we really push this point so young people can gain confidence and independence – letting them try their best at something is much more meaningful than us swooping in and doing it for them

  • Let the person say what they want to say, don’t assume you know and finish the sentence for them – and if someone’s speech is more difficult to understand, ask them to repeat themselves rather than pretending you heard and understood

  • Always speak directly to the young person, not to the person supporting them. Imagine someone asking the person next to you what you take in your tea or what you think of the weather – it would be weird, so why do it with a disabled person? If their communication is nonverbal then still speak to them directly, and the person supporting them might facilitate a response

  • Remember everyone is different – not all disability is visible, so don’t expect everyone to look a certain way. First and foremost we are Scouts – girls and boys, young people and young adults – who happen to need a little extra support.