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Political Correctness and People With Disabilities

Carola is a disability advocate with many years of experience working in the disability community. She is also a freelance writer.

Symbols representing disability.

Symbols representing disability.

As a writer and an advocate for people with disabilities, I have observed that disabled people have become caught up in the politically correct movement and are trying to change how they are described and viewed by the public. The world is full of terms that stigmatize and stereotype people with disabilities as helpless, heroic, inferior, childlike or 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.

History of Political Correctness

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 it is 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 people with disabilities?

Terminology Guidelines

Some groups and organizations like Abilities, a Canadian lifestyle magazine for disabled people, have provided guidelines on the correct terminology to be used for individuals with disabilities.

Acceptable TerminologyUnacceptable Terminology

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

retarded, idiot

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

hearing impaired

A reporter interviewing a man in a wheelchair.

A reporter interviewing a man in a wheelchair.

Guiding Principles for Writers

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.

Avoid 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 non-disabled 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 media usage. 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 to live a full life.

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Avoid words that put disability in a negative light

Many people with disabilities see their condition as a part of who they are. They do not 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.

Remember that disabled people want respect

People with disabilities want to be treated with dignity and respect when described in the media or 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.

Know that disabled people don't want to be treated as heroes

The media often refers to people with disabilities as “inspiring” and picture them as heroes. overcoming obstacles or challenges. The headlines scream that these people’s disabilities do not “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 thinks is great? People with disabilities long to be valued for who they are, no matter what they achieve or don't achieve in life.

What About 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 personally choose not to describe people with disabilities 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 consistently 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 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 easily 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.

Is putting the disability before people disrespectful, and does it 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 force 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 non-disabled must learn to conquer their 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.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2013 Carola Finch

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