An unfortunate lapse
A very angry reader has complained about a subordinate headline in a sports section: "Howard's Ben Helman has not let the fact that he is confined to a wheelchair stop him from competing for the track team." He points out, quite rightly, that the term "confined to a wheelchair" is trite and disparaging, contrary to both The Sun’s house style and Associated Press style.
The use of a wheelchair, as many advocates for the disabled point out, is to increase mobility. The point of the article in question is what Ben Helman can do, not what he can’t. So "confined to a wheelchair" is misleading as well as insensitive. Our house stylebook forbids the use of "wheelchair-bound" and insists that "uses a wheelchair" is accurate and preferable. It has done so for at least 13 years.
One of my professors in graduate school liked to quote a maxim from the Army: "Thirty percent never get the word." Well, The Sun’s headline-writing copy editors have now gotten the word once again. All of them.
The efforts of newspapers to avoid disparaging or insulting terms, and to refer to disability only where it is relevant, have been largely successful. You are highly unlikely to see the subject of an article referred to as a cripple. We have also striven to avoid excess or silliness in the other direction. We use disabled because people with disabilities are unable to perform certain tasks. We do not call them differently abled or challenged. Euphemism can be as diminishing as outright insult.
None of this amounts to pandering to a group’s preoccupations and interests. The efforts of newspapers to purge their pages of offensive racial and ethnic terms, stereotypes about women and gay people, and condescension toward the disabled reflect attempts to foster a more civil and respectful society. Unfortunately, we don’t always pay close enough attention to what we say.