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As language, perceptions and social mores change rapidly, 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 not universally accepted. This style guide, which covers dozens of words and terms commonly used when referring to disability, can help. The guide was developed by the National Center on Disability and Journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and was last updated in the summer of 2021.
First, we would like to offer some basic guidelines:
- Refer to a disability only when it’s relevant to the story and, when possible, confirm the diagnosis with a reputable source, such as a medical professional or other licensed professional.
- When possible, ask sources how they would like to be described. If the source is not available or unable to communicate, ask a trusted family member, advocate, medical professional 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.
- Be sensitive when using words like “disorder,” “impairment,” “abnormality” and “special” to describe the nature of a disability. The word “condition” is often a good substitute that avoids judgement. But note that there is no universal agreement on the use of these terms — not even close. “Disorder” is ubiquitous when it comes to medical references; and the same is true for “special” when used in “special education,” so there may be times when it’s appropriate to use them. But proceed with extra caution.
- Similarly, there is not really a good way to describe the nature of a condition. As you’ll see below, “high functioning” and “low functioning” are considered offensive. “Severe” implies judgement; “significant” might be better. Again, proceed with caution. This is increasingly tricky turf.
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.
A note about person-first language. In the past, we have encouraged journalists and others to use person-first language (such as, “a person who has Down syndrome” rather than “a Down syndrome person”) as a default. Even with the caveat that this does not apply to all, we have heard from many people with disabilities who take issue with that advice. For us, this really emphasizes the fact that no two people are the same — either with regard to disabilities or language preferences. And so we are no longer offering advice regarding a default. Instead, we hope you will double down to find out how people would like to be described. We also will include some guidance in individual entries here — but again, we encourage you to confirm on a case-by-case basis.
Another note — this time about the language around COVID-19. The pandemic altered the way many people think about disability, as people who had never encountered such obstacles were suddenly unable to leave their houses. People with disabilities spoke out on social media about this, and “long haulers” now understand firsthand what some people with disabilities experience. The language around COVID-19 is evolving. The BBC and The Conversation both have well-considered takes on it. Archaeologist Elisa Perego coined the term “long COVID” to refer to people with lasting symptoms. This condition also has been called “long haul” and people with it, “long haulers.”
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.
–Amy Silverman, NCDJ advisory board member
Special thanks to Rebecca Monteleone, University of Toledo; Jon Henner, University of North Carolina at Greensboro; Sherri Collins, Arizona Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing; Sara Luterman; the NCDJ advisory board; and all the style guide readers who offered suggestions for this guide.