Acceptable language regarding people with disability has changed, and standards continue to adapt as understanding and perceptions evolve. Many terms once widely used are now considered to imply inferiority and serve to marginalise people. The National Center on Disability and Journalism has updated their Style Guide which provides alternatives to terms still seen too often in the media.
The guide also gives an explanation for why some terms are considered offensive, derogatory, and/or marginalising. Unless the context of the story relates to the disability, it might not be necessary to point to any kind of impairment. And think about illustrations and photos too.
Here are a few common terms to avoid:
Afflicted with: Implies that a person with a disability is suffering or has a reduced quality of life.
Able-bodied: Refers to a person who does not have a disability. The term implies that all people with disabilities lack “able bodies” or the ability to use their bodies well. Use non-disabled. Use person without disability.
Confined to a wheelchair: Describes a person only in relationship to a piece of equipment designed to liberate rather than confine. Use wheelchair user.
Stricken with, suffers from, victim of: These terms carry the assumption that a person with a disability is suffering or has a reduced quality of life. Use living with…
Demented: Refer to someone as having dementia only if the information is relevant to the story and a formal diagnosis has been made. Use “a person with dementia” or “a person living with dementia.” Do not use senile.
Special needs: This can be problematic where there are government funded programs for “special schools”. The term is considered stigmatising – use “functional needs” or describe the specific issue or disability.
Inclusive illustrations: What’s in a face?
It’s often someone other than the writer of an article that chooses a picture to go with it. Usually this is a stock photo that might not convey the intended message. Stock photos of older people are often patronising. They show young and old hands, or a young person looking lovingly at an older person. Most illustrations are far from inclusive.
Similarly, stock photos of wheelchair users often use non-disabled models and not real wheelchair users. An article and guideline from an illustrator discusses how to add diversity to your brand whether an organisation, service or a product. The title of the article is, Your Face Here: Creating illustration guidelines for a more inclusive visual identity.
Whether being used to distill complex messages or add a touch of whimsy, illustration is one piece that makes up a company’s visual brand identity.”
Also have a look at these stock photos of older people and see what you think. Note that they are all white and active – no diversity here.
Do’s and Don’ts of disability language
Language etiquette around the topic of disability seems to get some people tongue-tied. Fear of offending often results in just that. But so does using outmoded terms such as “handicapped”. So what are the do’s and don’ts of terminology and language use?
People with Disability Australia (PWDA) have a great guide. It gives a context to the importance of language and how it relates to dignity and respect. It is based on the social model of disability. That is, disability is not an individual medical problem. Disablement is the result of an environment filled with physical and social barriers.
Should you say “People with disability” or “disabled person?” It depends on the individual. However, government policies use the person first version – people with disability. The one to avoid is “the disabled” because it dismisses people and puts this diverse group into one category. The same can be said for “the elderly”.
Adaptations of the word disability, or euphemisms, should not be used either. Terms such as differently-abled, special needs, or handicapable sound clever but are demeaning. Other terms such as “all abilities” suggests the opposite – a special place for people with disability. If it is inclusive it shouldn’t need a “special” title. However, accessible features can be included in any descriptions of the place or service.
The PWDA guide gives an overview of ableist language and its impact, some advice on reporting on disability, and a list of words and recommended alternatives.
Disability is not about inspiration
One other important aspect of reporting on disability is what the late Stella Young described as “inspriation porn” in an entertaining TED talk. The portrayal of a person doing everyday things, or achieving a goal, as being inspiring gets the no-go signal. People with disability are often portrayed in the media as being “sufferers” or “heroes”. Rarely is either the case.
How shall I say that? is a magazine article written from a personal perspective.