Inclusive sports language for athletes and outdoor enthusiasts with disabilities
The World Health Organization estimates that 1.3 billion people – or 16% of the global population – currently experience some kind of disability. This includes both physical and mental ailments. But it’s not just accessibility barriers that create boundaries – language can have a negative effect, too.
While the industry’s taken steps to make our favorite outdoor and action sports more accessible to everyone, the way we describe action sports enthusiasts with disabilities hasn’t quite caught up. Basically, the words and phrases we use to talk about and address people with disabilities are a huge part of their everyday experience. How we write and speak to anyone matters – but considering how our words impact specific groups means we can truly create a more inclusive space where it matters.
In this blog post, we’ve got the lowdown on terms that are best avoided, better alternatives to use and why inclusive sports language is so important for community members with disabilities. After reading this, we hope you’ll leave with the confidence to welcome, empower and shine a light on the incredible athletes that push the limits of what’s possible in action sports every single day.
How to define disability
The first step to including someone is understanding them. So what does disability actually mean? Well, it’s a blanket term that describes certain elements of a person’s life experience ranging from their physical body to their interactions with society. It can be further broken down into:
- Impairment: a problem with the body’s function or structure
- Activity limitation: when activities and actions become limited by a disability
- Participation restriction: an issue people with disabilities face in life situations
Disabilities aren’t necessarily an indicator of a health problem – they’re a part of someone’s lived experience. Sadly, the world – not just the outdoor sports industry – isn’t always geared up for individuals with disabilities. Using inclusive language is the least we can do, but it’s a small change that has a big impact. A good rule of thumb is to acknowledge the person before the disability, putting them first. And that can mean literally opting to say “person with disabilities” rather than “disabled person”.
Disability doesn’t have to be an obstacle in action sports
The world’s most extreme sports present plenty of challenges, but disability doesn’t have to be one of them. The action sports industry is filled with some incredible people who don’t let their disabilities stop them from crushing their favorite sports. Here are just a few:
Bethany Hamilton is a professional surfer whose arm was bitten off by a shark when she was 13 years old. Even so, she was back in the water only a month later using a custom-made surfboard to accommodate her altered balance. She started out surfing close to the shore, sticking to the beaches where she felt most comfortable to build up her confidence. And build it she did.
She won the 2005 National Scholastic Surfing Association (NSSA) Championship within two years of the shark attack, helping to prove that people with physical impairments can achieve as much or more as those without.
After losing her kidneys, spleen and both legs below the knee due to an-often deadly bacterial blood infection, Amy Purdy went on to become the most decorated paralympic snowboarder in US history. She even built her own prosthetics to allow her to snowboard when she couldn’t find any that were suitable.
Amy later started the non-profit organization Adaptive Action Sports (AAS) which aims to provide action sports programs for youth, young adults and veterans with disabilities while breaking down attitudinal barriers that promote exclusion.
Extreme wheelchair athlete Aaron Fotheringham (aka Wheelz) performs tricks adapted from BMX and skateboarding. He was born with spina bifida – a spinal cord condition that prevents him from using his legs. Not only is he a four-time winner of the WCMX World Championships, but he’s also the first person ever to perform the wheelchair Flair/backflip 180.
Since then, Aaron has toured the world, performing and speaking, and he visits summer camps as a mentor and coach for children with disabilities. During an interview, he said, “I was able to go further than I could’ve ever dreamed of – all because of my wheelchair”. He doesn’t consider himself as being confined to a wheelchair. Instead, it’s an asset. He rides it like a skater on a skateboard.
What language should sports and outdoor brands use for athletes and outdoor enthusiasts with disabilities?
If you’re a sports brand, the best way to speak about athletes and outdoor enthusiasts with disabilities is to focus on their skills and talent. There’s often no need to focus on their disability at all. However, if you’re ever in doubt, here are some words and phrases to use or avoid the next time you create content.
*These terms are specific to the English language. To be truly inclusive, the language you use needs to be researched through a market-specific lens.
|Term to avoid||Better alternative||Why?|
|Defect / Birth defect / Congenital defect||Disability since birth / Person with a disability from birth||Saying ‘defect’ implies that there’s something wrong with the person with a disability. It allows the disability to define the person when it should be the other way around.|
|Crippled / Abnormal cripple||A person with [insert disability or impairment]||These words remove the person’s humanity and make it sound as if there’s something wrong with them. Again, the better alternative puts the person before the disability.|
|Brain damaged||A person with a brain injury||People with brain injuries aren’t ‘damaged’ – they have an impairment that’s affected their brain. Many people with a brain injury can lead fulfilling and normal lives.|
|Wheelchair-bound / Confined to a wheelchair||Wheelchair user / Uses a wheelchair / Aided by a wheelchair||A wheelchair is a mobility aid that provides freedom. People with physical impairments aren’t defined by their wheelchairs. They use wheelchairs to push the limits of what’s possible.|
|The disabled / The blind / The deaf (etc.)||People with a disability / Disabled people / People with a physical impairment / People with a vision impairment (etc.)||Using terms that begin with ‘the’ generalizes people with disabilities. It also dehumanizes them. Be specific when talking about different impairments.|
|Victim / Suffering from / Afflicted with / Vegetative||A person with [name of the impartment]||These words to avoid imply that people with disabilities are suffering or unable to live a normal life. This can be offensive and limits their existence to their disability.|
It’s good to avoid potentially offensive words, but try not to get caught up in the political correctness of it all. By fearing to say anything, you risk not including people with disabilities at all. As long as you put the person before the disability, you won’t stray too far from the trail. If you’d like to learn more, The International Paralympic Committee has created a guide about para and IPC terminology, explaining which terms are acceptable and which aren’t.
We know this can feel like a big ask. If you need support, we can help you build tone of voice guidelines that won’t leave consumers with disabilities out in the cold.
What else can sports and outdoor brands do to support people with disabilities?
Words matter, but they’re nothing without actions to back them up. There are several things your sports brand can do to support outdoor sports athletes and fans with disabilities.
For starters, you could sponsor competitions geared towards people with disabilities – like the ISA World Para (adaptive) Surfing Championship. Hosted by AmpSurf, this competition sees some of the world’s top adaptive surfers participate in para-surfing at its highest level.
By sponsoring adaptive events like this, you can help give back to the disabled community. You’ll also be supporting up-and-coming outdoor sports enthusiasts by giving them the opportunity to compete in their favorite sports.
Provide a platform
You can also use your voice to highlight outdoor sports athletes and fans with disabilities within your community. Giving them a platform can help get their name out in the wider world. It can also help outdoor fans understand more about the challenges they may face within extreme sports and spur action to create a more inclusive industry.
We’re on hand to help you build an inclusive community
Still not sure how to use inclusive language for athletes and outdoor enthusiasts with disabilities? We get it. Whether you need support translating your content or creating it from scratch, we can be the extra pair of hands you need to start building a welcoming community for everyone.
To chat about the next steps, shoot us a message at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll get right back to you.
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Martina is the CEO and founder at The Action Sports Translator. After starting her career in marketing translation in 2010, she has been recognized as a Localization industry influencer multiple years in a row and has been working with some of the world's most exciting brands to bring multilingual marketing campaigns to life.
Co-founder and localization manager at Protect Our Winters Italy, she founded The Action Sports Translator to provide outdoor brands with a sports translation service that truly gets them. When she isn’t working, you can usually find her climbing a mountain or snowboarding down the other side.
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