When the Media Gets It Wrong: Why Language Matters when Writing about People with Disabilities

Examples of person-first language

Photo credit: Southwest Center for Independent Living

A few years ago, I was reading an article in the Washington Post that mentioned several political appointees with disabilities. All of them were intelligent and accomplished, according to the article, but I remember cringing when the columnist used the term, “wheelchair-bound,” to describe them. This was not the first time I’d seen poor word choices used to report on people with disabilities in mainstream media, and it would not be the last.

You may be asking, “What’s wrong with the term wheelchair-bound?” Well, first of all, it is not accurate. Bound, in this context, means “confined to.” This is not the case for people who use wheelchairs. Many people who use wheelchairs transfer out of them to sit at restaurants, drive, bathe and do all kinds of other things. Some of them only use wheelchairs on certain occasions, or also use other mobility aids. For example, one of the appointees mentioned in the article, Tammy Duckworth (who was recently elected to the House of Representatives, but at the time, was an Assistant Secretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs) also uses prosthetic legs.

Even people who cannot transfer out of their wheelchairs by themselves are not “bound” or tied to the chair; rather they use it as a means to get around. If you rely on your car, because there is a lack of public transportation in your town, are you “car-bound”?

Words are important because they form an image in your mind. “Wheel-chair bound” makes me think of a person who is confined to a wheelchair – someone who is limited by it. Why not simply write that a person “uses a wheelchair”? Using person-first language (e.g., a person who is deaf, people who are blind) is a simple way to write respectfully and positively about people with disabilities. By putting the person first, the writer places the importance where it should be – on the individual, NOT on his or her disability.

This is not a matter of “political correctness” or people being “overly sensitive.” There is a reason language about certain groups of people (e.g., women, minorities) has evolved over the years. Some words are no longer acceptable, because they are offensive or hurtful. Any woman who has been called “honey,” “sweetie” or “dear” in the workplace by an older male colleague can attest to what it feels like to be demeaned by words, even if that was not the intent.

Disability advocates have been fighting the battle to get the media to use appropriate word choices when writing about people with disabilities for decades.  Judging from what I’ve read recently, while there has been some improvement in this area, there is still work to be done. It should not be difficult to use person-first language, dump antiquated phrases like “wheel-chair bound” and stop re-enforcing old stereotypes that people with disabilities are victims, and yet sometimes it feels like members of the media have been slow to adapt the way they write about people with disabilities. I believe these changes do make a difference – that they go a long way to altering perceptions of people with disabilities – so I will continue to fight for them, both professionally and personally.

One of the excuses I’ve often heard is that writing “people with disabilities” takes up more space than writing “disabled people.” I understand that space is at a premium for print media, but I don’t think nine extra characters is a reason to continue using language that is disrespectful. If it’s awkward to repeatedly write “people with disabilities” throughout an article, the writer can simply use the abbreviation “PWDs” after the first instance.

The push to advocate for word choices that are respectful to people with disabilities isn’t limited to members of the media. Special Olympics has been leading a very successful and important effort called, “End the R-Word,” for the past several years to spread public awareness about how offensive and demeaning using the words “retard” or “retarded” in a derogatory manner is to people with intellectual disabilities, their families and friends. One young man in a video on the site illustrates the point perfectly when he says, “I’m not retarded. I’m Eric.”

Special Olympics and many others involved in the movement were very vocal with their criticism when political pundit Ann Coulter used the “R-word” on Twitter to describe President Obama following the third presidential debate. There has also been public outcry over the use of the “R-word” in movies, such as “Tropic Thunder” and “The Descendants.”

Thanks to the “End the R-Word” campaign and others, progress is being made. Recently, film director Adam McKay agreed to nix the word from the upcoming sequel to “Anchorman,” CNN reported positively on the campaign and last year, when comedian Rick Younger used the R-word on The Today Show, host Kathie Lee Gifford immediately told him, “We don’t use that word here.” Perhaps the most effective part of the campaign, however, is the “Not Acceptable” public service announcement, which compares the “R-word” to slurs used against other minority groups.

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association has developed an excellent resource about appropriate ways to write and speak about people with disabilities. They recommend:

  1. Using person-first language;
  2. Using the word “disability,” rather than “handicapped”;
  3. Avoiding the use of the words “normal” or “normally” as a comparison to people with disabilities (e.g., People who speak with a stutter often experience more difficulty on job interviews than people who speak normally.);
  4. Avoiding terms that project a negative connotation (e.g. wheel-chair bound); and
  5. Not overusing the word “special,” as in “special needs” or “special populations.”

Writing about people with disabilities (of which there are nearly 57 million in the U.S. alone) in a respectful, positive manner isn’t difficult. Simply following the guidelines above and advocating for members of the media to do the same will go a long way in helping to change perceptions about people with disabilities, so they are fully included in their communities and the workforce.

Diana Zeitzer is the communications director for Disability.gov. She is a proud Penn State alumna, who enjoys running marathons and performing improv comedy.

22 thoughts on “When the Media Gets It Wrong: Why Language Matters when Writing about People with Disabilities

  1. I agree, and I have another one for your list: the insensitive use of the word “autistic.” I rankle when people refer to my son as “autistic.”

    I have a son who has autism. Behaviors are autistic, not people.

    When people say “He’s autistic,” I feel like they are putting his disability first and not him. I also feel it depersonalizes him and sets him apart, as if he were another species, other than human (which I’ve actually had people say to me).

    Fortunately, I hear this term in reference to people less and less. I believe this is because of the very great changes that are happening in our society regarding the inclusion of people with disabilities in our schools, workplaces, and on our screens. And, of course, articles like yours, which are greatly appreciated!

    There will always be people who are unaware (and then will change when educated), others who know but just are plain insensitive (those are the ones who groan about political correctness), and some who are patently brutal and want to hurt with words (Ms. Coulter being the prime example). I direct my energies to raising awareness among those who can be influenced.

    Efforts to educate people who are simply unaware but want to talk about disabilities with sensitivity are really paying off. It needs to start with the media and journalists, however, as that is where so many people get their information.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Mary! You are absolutely correct that people often say someone is autistic, instead of saying he or she is a person who has autism. I am hearing this less and less, as people become more educated, and I hope the trend continues this way. Also, I am glad to see so much more about autism in the media, both in print and TV news, and on television shows like “Parenthood.” Television may not always get it right, but showing people with disabilities as a part of everyday life is so important.

  3. Thank you for speaking out on this important issue! So many people say so many if these things without realizing how ridiculous they doing and that they are inadvertently setting limits and using one tiny characteristic to describe an entire person.

  4. Hi Diana. This article is wonderful. I would like to connect with you offline about this topic however, I wanted to share with you that this topic was presented by colleague Holly Nielsen at this year’s PRSA International Confernce. The session was sponsored by the Diversity Committee. I am the 2013 Diversity Chair and am a huge advocate for disability and why it should not be ignored when discussing diversity.

    Check out the presentation from conference here: http://www.prsa.org/Conferences/InternationalConference/program/data/display/5323/Ability_Beyond_Disability_Understanding_Accessibil

    Would love to connect with you. Thanks!

    • Hi Brandi,

      Thank you so much for your nice comment on my blog post, and for sharing Holly’s wonderful presentation! I’m so glad to hear it was a topic at the PRSA conference, and that as the new Diversity Chair, you understand how important it is to include disability in the discussion when talking about diversity. I’m looking forward to connecting with you! Feel free to email me at dzeitzer@conceptspr.com.

      Best,

      Diana

  5. In the UK and amongst disability activists in the US, the term ‘disabled person/people’ is preferred because it states the fact that people with various conditions are made not able to do things by the physical and societal barriers put in our way to achieving the things we need. On top of which, members of the Blind, Deaf, and Autistic Communities prefer identity-first language on the basis that it’s obvious one doesn’t believe they’re people if one has to put oneself through linguistic gymnastics to remind oneself of that fact (adjective-noun order is more natural in the English language).

    • Yes, there is some debate about the use of person-first language in the U.S. I can’t speak to the UK, but I have to disagree about “disabled person/people” being the preferred term among disability activists. I work with and know personally many people in the disability community that identify as disability activists, and they prefer person-first language. Of course as you mentioned, among certain groups of people with disabilities, the preference is identity-first. It is a very personal thing. However, I think certain terms (handicapped, wheelchair bound, crippled) are offensive across the board.

      • I agree that handicapped and wheelchair bound are offensive terms, the latter especially, but as a crutches user I sometimes refer to myself as a cripple (“I’m crippled, not stupid!”), and the only way it would bother me if others used it is if they did so in a derogatory way.
        Also, I said “amongst disability activists”, not “all disability activists”. A small distinction, but an important one.

  6. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association has developed an excellent resource about appropriate ways to write and speak about people with disabilities. They recommend:
    1. Using person-first language;
    2. Using the word “disability,” rather than “handicapped”;
    3. Avoiding the use of the words “normal” or “normally” as a comparison to people with disabilities (e.g., People who speak with a stutter often experience more difficulty on job interviews than people who speak normally.);
    4. Avoiding terms that project a negative connotation (e.g. wheel-chair bound); and
    5. Not overusing the word “special,” as in “special needs” or “special populations.”

    Oh, I never thought of this before. So, in order to show maximum respect, I should refer to you as a person with femaleness and Americanism, and totally disregard your choice of how to self-identify, just as person-firsters like you do when they tell me I’m not allowed to call myself an Autistic person, a dyslexic person, or a dyspraxic person. *facepalms*
    It would be far more respectful to defer to the preferences of the individuals and groups described, don’t you think?

  7. This article is not at all about trying to regulate how an individual chooses to self-identify. No one said you are “not allowed” to call yourself whatever you want. It is about how media uses language. Since it is not possible to ask every person how they prefer to self-identify, and many people find non person-first language offensive (see previous comments above), it is my personal opinion it’s best to use the wording that is found least offensive. Out of curiosity, do you find person first language offensive? As a person with a learning disability, I do find the term “learning disabled” pretty offensive.

    • No one said you are “not allowed” to call yourself whatever you want.
      Tell that to those who’ve told me, “Don’t you mean you’re a person with autism?”
      Er, no. I’m a person with a backpack, and I’m Autistic. I’ve never accidentally left my Autism on a bus.
      Since it is not possible to ask every person how they prefer to self-identify, and many people find non person-first language offensive […]
      Whereas it is possible to know that the vast majority of ActuallyAutistic people prefer identity-first language, it’s their families who prefer person-first unless they’re Autistic or otherwise neurodivergent themselves. Same as with blind people and deaf people.
      Out of curiosity, do you find person first language offensive?
      In relation to my disabilities, yes. I’m not a person with a disability, I’m a disabled person. The former says that there’s something wrong with me the way I am, the latter states the fact that I could take a fuller role in society if it weren’t for the barriers thrown up before me because they make me ‘not able’. In fact, I find identity-first language more often puts the person first than ‘person-first’ language does because not only do I not get the feeling that I’m only Autism and nothing else to someone who feels they have to put themselves through linguistic gymnastics to remind themselves that I’m a person, but when someone uses identity-first language about any of my conditions, they accept them as only a part of me the same as my gender and my skin tone are.
      BTW, I’ve commented on this blog before, but I forgot. Sorry.

      • Hi again – I wanted to thank you for your comments. I think you bring up some very important points. Obviously if certain groups prefer identify first language, that should be reflected in the blog post I wrote. I’m going to reach out to PRSA to see if it is possible to update the information in the post about person first language. I’ve also reached out to the National Council on Disability to see if they have any guidance regarding person first vs. identify first language, particularly for the autistic community. Thank you again for your comments!

      • Obviously if certain groups prefer identify first language, that should be reflected in the blog post I wrote. I’m going to reach out to PRSA to see if it is possible to update the information in the post about person first language.
        That’s good of you. Thank you very much. :)

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  10. I can’t speak to the UK, but I have to disagree about “disabled person/people” being the preferred term among disability activists.
    Yeah, disability activists, not disabled activists. The same way that there’s a fifty/fifty divide between person-first and identity-first languages amongst the Autism Community, but identity-first language is preferred by over 80% of the Autistic Community. Just sayin’.

  11. excellent put up, very informative. I ponder why the oppositfe specialists of this sector don’t notice this.

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