Political Correctness and People with Disabilities
People with disabilities have become caught up in the politically correct movement and are trying to change the way they are described and viewed by the public. The world is full of terms that stigmatize and stereotype people with disabilities as being helpless, heroic, inferior, childlike, or as having something seriously wrong with them. Positive changes have been made in disability lingo, but sometimes, some people feel that the pursuit of political correctness may have gone too far.
It is hard to pinpoint exactly when the politically correct movement in the disability community started, but the movement has stirred some controversy. We do know that at some point, some people decided that terms like “deaf,” or “blind” were derogatory, negative, and should not be used. Alternatives have been created within the disability community and in the media. Some terms have been accepted by people with disabilities, and others have not.
Even the 2013 “American Press Stylebook,” the Bible of most journalists. addresses correct usage of disability terminology for the first time. Under the term “mental illness,” the Stylebook advises writers not to mention mental illness in a story unless absolutely necessary. Writers are urged to use the correct labels for conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, when needed. The stylebook says that words like “insane,” “crazy/crazed,” “deranged” or “nuts” should not be used unless they are part of a quote that is necessary to the story.
As a reporter and writer about disability issues, I occasionally get feedback on the terminology I use, both positive and negative. Sometimes, it is difficult for me to discern the difference between the good, the bad and the downright ugly. Some people do take political correctness to ridiculous extremes. So what words are OK to use and will be acceptable to most disabled people?
There are some groups and organizations like “Abilities,” a Canadian lifestyle magazine for disabled people, have provided some guidelines on the correct terminology to be used for the individuals with disabilties.
words that don't emphasize the disability negatively, i.e. a person who uses a wheelchair
crippled, afflicted, confined to a wheelchair, handicap, physically challenged, wheelchair bound
references that uphold the dignity of the individual, i.e. a person with an emotional disorder
suffers from ..., or is a victim of a certain disorder
avoid the word retarded or derogatory terms about people with cognitive difficulties
simple words instead of trendy euphemisms that may be inaccurate or patronizing
special, physically challenged, handi capable
Accurate descriptive words and the formal names for conditions for people with mental illness such as schizonphrenia
deviant, crazy, deranged, insane, abnormal
Deaf, late-deafened, hard of hearing
Most of this information makes sense and is easy for a writer to implement, but sometimes individuals or organizations can go overboard in their demands for political correctness. There are several guiding principles that writers can use to determine which terminology will be acceptable to most people who have or deal with people with disabilities.
Language that talks about disability as a limitation
Disabled people do not want to be seen as “limited” by their disabilities such as being "wheelchair bound* or “held back” by intellectual disabilities. Disabled people want to be seen as capable of doing anything that able-bodied people do and don't want to be described as succeeding "in spite of" their disability. Some even capitalize the “a” in “disAbility” to emphasize this point.
The words “handicap” and “cripple” have also dropped from most common usage in the media. People with disabilities don’t want to be seen as a Tiny Tim, limited by their disability and in need of rescue by a Scrooge in order to live a full life.
Words that put disability into a negative light
Many people with disabilities see their condition as a part of who they are. They don’t think of themselves as “suffering” or “enduring” their state. They don't want to be described as "challenged" either, which seems to indicate that their lives are full of obstacles to overcome.
The media tends to say that a person's disability does not "define them." The implication seems to be that most people are "defined" by their disabilities in the eyes of the public.
Disabled people want respect
People with disabilities want to be treated with dignity and respect when they are described in the media or in conversation. The term “retard,” for example, has largely fallen into disrepute as a descriptor of people with intellectual disabilities, except among teens, who use the term to label someone as stupid or idiotic. Terms like this are disrespectful.
Disabled people don't want to be treated as heroes
The media often refers to people with disabilities as being “inspiring,” and picture them as being heroes. overcoming obstacles or challenges. The headlines scream that these people’s disabilities doesn’t “stop,” “Impede,” or “prevent,” them from participating in sports or achieving academic excellence. They “don’t allow” their disability to hold them back.
These statements imply that all people with disabilities face obstacles when in reality, their condition probably has nothing to do with their success in a particular endeavor. What about the people who don't "overcome" their disabilities to do something society feels is great? People with disabilities long to be valued for who they are, no matter what they achieve or don't achieve in life.
People first language
Some people with disabilities and their advocates insist that when a reference is made to a person with a disability in an article by the media, people first language be used. In other words, that people be mentioned before the disability.
As a news writer who monitors what is going on in the disability community, this rule does not seem to be in common usage. For example, reporters use "people with autism" and "autistic people" interchangeably. I personnaly choose not to describe people with disabilities this way with "people first" language at all times. Some disability advocates are very passionate about this issue. I occasionally get emails childing me for not using "people first" language in my articles.
I am often limited in the number of words I can use in a news story. I also want to vary the expressions I use in order to hold the readers' interest. Using a phrase like "people with autism” over and over again is cumbersome reading. Readers on the Internet want concise and clear terminology that they can easly scan - usually within a limited time frame, There is also a chance that my editor might accuse me of "word stuffing" – adding unnecessary words to meet a word quota.
Does putting the disability before people disrespectful and make people think of the disability before the person? That is a matter for debate. Personally,as a writer myself, I don’t think so. I feel that this is an example of taking political correctness too far.
Walking the fine line
The driving forces behind the political correctness movement in the disability community is this group's desires to be respected and treated like capable human beings instead of being defined by their disabilities. People who are able-bodied must learn to conquer the fear of people who are different, stop pitying them, and learn to accept them – disabilities and all, and empower them to take full part in society.
© 2013 Carola Finch