How to Write – and Talk – about Disability

Guidelines for positive powerful portrayal
from Research and Training Center on Independent Living

Editor’s Note: The words and images we use can create either a straightforward, positive view of people with disabilities or an insensitive portrayal that reinforces common myths and is a form of discrimination. Although the following excerpts are from guidelines intended for writers, they can help us all make better choices in terms of language and portrayal.

Introduction

As writers, we should all strive for accuracy and use current terminology regarding people with disabilities. To do otherwise is not only substandard journalism, it also can offend readers.

This revised Guidelines for Reporting and Writing about People with Disabilities explains preferred terminology and offers suggestions for accurate ways to describe people with disabilities.

Although opinions may differ on some terms, this booklet reflects input from more than 100 national disability organizations and has been reviewed and endorsed by media and disability experts throughout the country.

Portrayal Issues

Please consider the following when writing about people with disabilities.

Do not focus on disability unless it is crucial to a story. Avoid tear-jerking human interest stories about incurable diseases, congenital impairments or severe injury. Focus instead on issues that affect the quality of life for those same individuals, such as accessible transportation, housing, affordable health care, employment opportunities and discrimination. People with disabilities actively participate in their communities and can participate even more when portrayed just like anyone else in the community.

Put people first, not their disability. Say woman with arthritis, a child who has a learning disability, or person with a disability. This puts the focus on the individual, not the particular functional limitation. Labeling the person as the disability (for example, a quad) dehumanizes the individual and equates the condition with the person. It is people first, too, for indicating disability groups. Say people with cystic fibrosis or people who have cancer. Terms such as “the_____ (for example, “the retarded”) imply a homogenous group separate from society as a whole.

Do not portray successful people with disabilities as heroic overachievers or long suffering saints. Even though the public may find these portrayals inspirational, these stereotypes raise false expectations that all people—with and without disabilities—should be such “super humans.”

Avoid sensalization and negative labeling. Saying afflicted with, crippled with, victim of or suffers from devalues individuals with disabilities by portraying them as helpless objects of pity and charity. It is more neutral to say an individual with AIDS than a person who suffers from AIDS. Similarly, do not use emotional descriptors such as unfortunate or pitiful.

Emphasize abilities, not limitations, for example, uses leg braces or walks with crutches, rather than confined to a wheelchair or wheelchair bound. For, in reality, wheelchairs and crutches represent independence, not a burden. To emphasize capabilities, avoid words that start with in, dis, un, or de that imply lacking or inferiority such as invalid or defective.

Bypass condescending euphemisms. Disability groups also strongly object to the use of euphemisms to describe disabilities. Terms such as handicapable, differently abled, special, and challenged reinforce the idea that people cannot deal honestly with their disabilities.

Maintain the integrity of each individual and do not use words or phrases regarded as offensive such as freak, subnormal, vegetable, misshapen, feeble minded, or imbecile.

Do not imply disease when discussing disabilities that result from a prior disease episode. People who had polio and experienced after effects have post-polio syndrome. They are not currently experiencing the disease. Do not imply disease with people whose disability has resulted from anatomical or physiological damage (for example, a person with spina bifida or cerebral palsy). Reference to disease associated with a disability is acceptable only with chronic diseases, such as arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, or multiple sclerosis. Individuals with disabilities should never be referred to as patients or cases unless their relationship with their doctor is under discussion.

Portions of the Guidelines, which originally were funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, have been adopted into the Associated Press Stylebook, a basic reference for professional journalists. Please use the Guidelines when you write or report about people with disabilities.

To obtain the complete set of guidelines, or an attractive 18” x 24” poster of disability writing style do’s and don’ts, contact: Publications, Research and Training Center on Independent Living, 1000 Sunnyside Avenue, Room 4089 Dole, University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS 66045-7555. You can also contact our Center by e-mail: rtcil@ku.edu, phone: 785-864-4095, TTY: 785-864-0706, or by fax: 785-864-5063. Information about the Guidelines is also on the World Wide Web under www.rtcil.org.

Excerpted with permission from Guidelines for Reporting and Writing about People With Disabilities. ©2007 Seventh Edition. Research and Training Center on Independent Living, University of Kansas. Lawrence, Kansas

Appropriate Terminology

Below is a sample of the consensus – preferred terms for referring to disabilities.

Accessible

refers to accommodations for people who have a disability. Replace disabled or handicapped with accessible such as an accessible parking space rather than a handicapped parking space.

Autism

is considered to be a spectrum condition, as the symptoms may encompass a wide array of physical and behavioral anomalies. These conditions may be characterized by functional limitations in social interactions, language use and form, and repetitive actions. Effects can result in mild to severe impairment and can be mixed, that is, a person with severe limitations in one area may have normal or even extraordinary capabilities in another. Do not say autistic. Say person with autism.

Blind

describes a condition in which a person has loss of vision for ordinary life purposes. Visually impaired or living with vision loss are the generic terms used by some individuals to refer to all degrees of vision loss. Say boy who is blind, girl who is visually impaired, or man who has low vision.

Brain Injury

describes a condition where there is long-term or temporary disruption in brain function resulting from injury to the brain. Difficulties with cognitive, physical, emotional and/or social functioning may occur. Do not say brain damaged. Say person with a brain injury, woman who has sustained brain injury, or employee with an acquired brain injury.

In future issues we hope to print more of the group’s consensus-preferred terms for referring to disabilities.