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Disability and hypersensitivity

A reader wrote to one of our reporters, complaining that she stopped reading an article when she came to a reference about Maryland’s new alcohol tax that some of the proceeds would be used to assist disabled people. “Horrible and offensive,” she wrote. It should have been people with disabilities—put people first and disabilities second, she said.

Following the Associated Press Stylebook,* The Sun does not use disabled as a label for a specific person, but there is no objection to using it to describe classes of people. The subtlety of “people with disabilities” as distinguished from “disabled people” looks more finicky than meaningful. A person with a disability is, by definition, disabled.

I understand the point that it is undesirable to define a person’s identity by a disability. But unless we are to stop talking about white people or black people or female people or older people or sick people for fear of defining them in limiting categories, we ought to allow the adjective to precede the noun. It usually does in English.

While The Sun, also like AP, avoids disparaging terms—“cripple” and “retarded,” for two—it also avoids euphemisms like “physically challenged.”

We prefer neutral, factual terms, and “disabled” is still one of them.


*It has its lucid moments.


Posted by John McIntyre at 8:39 AM | | Comments (11)


For a moment, I thought I had been perusing a page from Orwell's "Politics and the English Language"...

I suspect this is mere mindless imitation of the process by which "people of color" became acceptable while "colored people" became unacceptable.

"Mysterious are the ways of taboo", as I observed once while pointing out that, though some people use another four-letter word starting with "f" as a euphemism for the F-word, others (including myself) find it more offensive because its literal meaning (a different sexual act) is closer to the surface. There is a similar discussion at the Language Log posting "Annals of [having sex] [feces]", about an innovative practice by the New York Post.

I share your discomfort with the objections to the term "disabled persons" while, at the same time, respecting the need for sensitivity to the unintended categorization. It is one of those "damned if you do, damned if you don't" moments. If I remember correctly, the term "disabled" came into use as a better choice than "crippled." It made sense. But, like other attempts (in the category of race, especially) we discovered that it is an evolving enterprise. There was a time when "black" was considered a better choice to describe a person of color. Some people object to it, though, as being an unfortunate categorization. I think we have to recognize the fragility of the identifying terms, while at the same time striving for clarity in reporting.

The point you make is a good one, and one that is not often discussed.

Well, it wouldn't hurt to have a look-see at the terms recommended by the National Center on Disability and Journalism. (It indicates which ones conform to AP style.)

I figure, if the community of people who are disabled (see what I just did there?) have proffered explicit and reasonable options for labeling and discussing them, why be a jerk? Putting people first makes sense.

I hope this doesn't mean that, say, the members of the "Disabled Persons" community on Facebook are going to be drummed out of the corps.

Eh, we still have organizations for blacks (er, Blacks) with "Negro" in the name. Yoda was wrong: There is "try."

Call my child "retarded" and you'll get no argument from me. It's not disparaging; it's just wrong. He won't catch up.

I think the issue is one of nuance, and applies whether referencing an individual or group. To my mind, the problem with using disabled as an adjective applied to a person or people is that it implies an overarching brokenness. For most people, a disability is part of their whole, affecting some, but not all, of their physical or cognitive functions. My husband, for example, has limited mobility below the waist and uses a wheelchair. His legs are disabled, but his abilities far outweigh his disabilities. Describing him as a "disabled person" implies, to my ear at least, that he is not able to fully participate in his own life, that his disabilities are the controlling element of his daily existence, which they are not.

I understand if people find this all hair-splitting and persnickety. But it is important to my husband. The assumptions around the word disabled are major, and marginalizing; the word implies to most people that a disabled person is unable to fully care for himself, support himself, live independently, etc. The vast majority of people with disabilities do all of those things, but they have to work against those assumptions constantly. When people - potential employers, for example - see my husband's wheelchair, they tend to immediately make assumptions about his capabilities that he then needs to overcome simply to get to the same place that someone without a visibility disability automatically starts out.

I've used my husband's issues as an example, but for people whose disabilities are more severe than his, the issue remains - using disabled as a modifier of the whole person distorts the relationship of the disability to the person.

Given what we have learned in the past few years about how easily our opinions and decision-making can be steered by subtle visual and verbal cues, it seems reasonable to consider the potential unintended consequences of our word choices. For example, a recent study showed that we will typically respond differently to a question about getting help if we see a picture of two people holding hands than if the two people are standing apart. Subtle. I'm not saying we have to become slaves to awareness, to the point of compromising good writing. But in my view, awareness of the potential effects pays its own reward--if you care about the effects of what you say, you can improve your readers response by choosing words that suit their frame of reference.

On Thursday night "So You Think You Can Dance" had a guest appearance from a dance group called (I think) Axis. It was a duet featuring a man in a wheelchair and a woman. They performed beautifully, and expanded my own personal definition of what constitutes "dance."

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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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