Language guide

The language we use is important

Language choices are crucial for ensuring all students receive a dignified, meaningful education.

The way we talk about people can influence attitudes and impact people’s lives. It’s important to speak about others positively. Language such as ‘suffering from’ focuses on difference and is not helpful. Instead, think of a student as a whole-person —focus on their interests, personality traits and individual and inter-personal strengths. 

So, what language do you use to talk about a student’s disability?

It is up to the young person and their family. Their preferences take priority over the recommendations below. 

Some families prefer a person-first approach, where you refer to the person before the disability—so ‘student on the autism spectrum’. This puts the focus on the student, rather than their disability. However, others may prefer identify-first language, so ‘autistic student’ rather than a ‘student with autism’. This can help individuals to claim their disabilities with pride.

There is not always a right way. The best approach is to use the student’s name. If you’re not sure, ask them or their family how they like to refer to their disability and use their language.

Keep in mind that theres no comparable word for disability in Aboriginal languages. This means that many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disability do not identify as a person with disability. This is important to remember when talking to the student or their family.

How do I use strength-based language when describing the challenges a student may be experiencing in the classroom?

  • Explicitly identify a student’s strengths and what they can do. Many challenges can, in specific situations, also be a strength.
  • Frame challenges in terms of external supports that may be needed.
  • Identify a range of terms that can be utilised in place of deficit-based terminology.
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Examples of strength-based language

  • Strengths and abilities.
  • With support, he can…
  • Morgan tends to learn well with concrete examples rather than abstract examples.
  • Sunny benefits from support in using a skill she learned in one task in another context.
  • He tends to be more comfortable when prepared for an upcoming change.
  • She finishes tasks quickly and with enthusiasm, but I have observed that at times she misses instructions. Are there strategies you use at home that might be helpful in the classroom?
  • He listens carefully to instructions and takes pride in his work. He becomes frustrated with work involving fine motor skills, and some additional supports or modified tools/activities will support him to complete these activities to his satisfaction.

School Excellence Framework alignment


Australian Professional Standards for Teachers alignment

Standard 1: Know students and how they learn


School leaders, secondary teachers and SLSOs


This resource can be used as a guide for school staff in inclusive family engagement and use of language. 


November 2021. Share your feedback here