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.
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.
“Words can set the tone for a company, but it’s the pictures that give it a face. Illustration has yet to find its place in the tech world, because it’s often unconsidered and thrown in on the fly. 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.” There are other interesting design articles on this blog site.
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.