As language, perceptions and social mores change at a seemingly faster and faster rate, it is becoming increasingly difficult for journalists and other communicators to figure out how to refer to people with disabilities. Even the term “disability” is no longer universally accepted. This style guide, developed by the National Center on Disability and Journalism at Arizona State University, is intended to help. It covers almost 200 words and terms commonly used when referring to disability, most of which are not covered in The Associated Press style guide.
But first some basic guidelines:
- Refer to a disability only when it’s relevant to the story and when the diagnosis comes from a reputable source, such as a medical professional or other licensed professional.
- When possible, use people-first language unless otherwise indicated by the source.
- When possible, ask the source how he or she would like to be described. If the source is not available or unable, ask a trusted family member or relevant organization that represents people with disabilities.
- Avoid made-up words like “diversability” and “handicapable” unless using them in direct quotes or to refer to a movement or organization.
Of course, our sources don’t always speak the way we write. That’s OK. You may end up using a derogatory term in a direct quote, but be certain that it’s fundamental to the story. Otherwise, paraphrase and use a more acceptable term.
In this guide, we urge reporters and other communications professionals to refer to a disability only when it’s relevant to the story being told. But what is “relevant” is not always clear. Should a story about residents complaining about noisy airplanes flying over their houses note that one of the residents who is complaining uses a wheelchair? Should someone who is blind be identified as such in a story about people who have been stranded while hiking and had to be rescued?
In the first case, we suggest the answer is “no.” The fact that someone uses a wheelchair does not make the airplane noise any more or less irritating. In the second case, the answer is “maybe.” If the hiker’s blindness contributed to him or her getting stranded, making note of that fact is relevant. If the person’s sight had nothing to do with the situation, leave it out.
People living with disabilities often complain, and rightly so, that their disability is mentioned even when the story has nothing to do with their disability.
Writing about disability is complicated and requires sensitivity, a must for any form of journalism that involves people. If you are in doubt about how to refer to a person, ask the person. And if you can’t ask the person, don’t avoid writing about disability. Use this guide. Do your best.