Student perceptions of the language of disability, deficit and empowerment

Lister, Katharine and Coughlan, Tim (2018). Student perceptions of the language of disability, deficit and empowerment. In: Proceedings of the fifth Widening Participation Conference, Open University, Milton Keynes.


In a participatory research exercise with students, discomfort was expressed with the language and terminology used by higher education institutions (HEIs) to discuss disability. It was argued that this can be a factor in disclosure of disabilities, or in requests for adjustments or support. In response, a mixed-methods research project explored the language that students feel comfortable with, to identify gaps between this language and the social model language used in The Open University’s broadcast communications, and to investigate whether student-driven language norms could be adopted by the institution. While the findings identify that students are generally more comfortable with certain terms than others, they also show that views of appropriate language vary according to the context of the communication, and to demographics. The findings bring into question model-centric views of disability and language. Instead, we argue that they suggest a need for heterogeneous and context-driven language approaches.

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