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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.

Posted by John McIntyre at 7:05 PM | | Comments (3)


If "the point of the article is what Ben Helman can do", why mention the wheelchair at all?

Does it seem to you, though, that "uses a wheelchair" implies some choice? While "wheelchair-bound" and "confined to a wheelchair" have a disparaging ring to them, many people very much are confined or bound. They don't have a choice in the matter, and I've not met any who, given a choice, would prefer the chair. Does it help to say "... who must use a wheelchair"? My paper's style is the same as yours, and I support it because enough people are sensitive about it. But the solution falls a little short for me.

The problem with "confined" or "bound" to a wheelchair is that they are limiting terms, and wheelchairs are a solution that reduces limitations. If anything, it might be more accurate (though not especially sensitive) to say that one is confined by one's body and its abilities or lack thereof. The wheelchair is a device for overcoming the limitations of a body that can't walk; while to the non-disabled person it may look like a confining device, to a person who would otherwise be immobilized, it is freeing.

It's silly to imply that Helman's disability or wheelchair use shouldn't have been mentioned. Presumably his track accomplishments are remarkable because he is disabled, and not otherwise; therefore, his wheelchair is an integral part of the story. But Helman himself is an excellent example of the way the wheelchair extends one's abilities, rather than limits them.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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