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Terms to Avoid When Writing About Disability
NCDJ is publishing this list in conjunction with an updated style guide intended for journalists and members of the general public who are seeking the appropriate and accurate language to use when writing or talking about people living with disabilities. What is considered acceptable language regarding disabilities has changed dramatically over time, and standards continue to adapt as understanding and perceptions evolve. Many of the terms below were once widely used and were not always considered offensive, but now are widely considered to imply inferiority or have other negative connotations. Others are outdated medical or colloquial term
Here are a few terms to avoid:
Abnormal: Inappropriate when used to describe an individual. Abnormality is a term used to describe something deviating from what is normal. The term can be appropriate when used in a medical context, such as “abnormal curvature of the spine” or an “abnormal test result.” However, when used to describe an individual, abnormal is widely viewed as a derogative term. The phrase “abnormal behavior” reflects social-cultural standards and is open to different interpretations.
Afflicted with: Implies that a person with a disability is suffering or has a reduced quality of life. These terms carry the assumption that a person with a disability is suffering or has a reduced quality of life. Not every person with a disability suffers, is a victim or is stricken.NCDJ Recommendation: It is preferable to use neutral language when describing a person who has a disability, simply stating the facts about the nature of the disability. For example: “He has muscular dystrophy” or “he is living with muscular dystrophy.”
Able-bodied: Refers to a person who does not have a disability. The term implies that all people with disabilities lack “able bodies” or the ability to use their bodies well. Background: This term is used to describe someone who does not identify as having a disability. Some members of the disability community oppose its use because it implies that all people living with disabilities lack “able bodies” or the ability to use their bodies well. They prefer “non-disabled” or “enabled” as more accurate terms.NCDJ Recommendation: The term non-disabled or the phrase “does not have a disability” or “is not living with disability” are more neutral choices. Able-bodied is an appropriate term to use in some cases, such as government reports on the proportion of abled-bodied members in the work force. In some cases, the word “typical” can be used to describe a non-disabled condition.
Confined to a wheelchair: Describes a person only in relationship to a piece of equipment designed to liberate rather than confine. Background: People who use mobility equipment such as a wheelchair, scooter or cane consider their equipment part of their personal space, according to the United Spinal Association. People who use wheelchairs have widely different disabilities and varying abilities.NCDJ Recommendation: It is acceptable to describe a person as “someone who uses a wheelchair,” followed by an explanation of why the equipment is required. Avoid “confined to a wheelchair” or “wheelchair-bound” as these terms describe a person only in relationship to a piece of equipment. The terms also are misleading, as wheelchairs can liberate people, allowing them to move about, and they are inaccurate, as people who use wheelchairs are not permanently confined in them, but transfer to sleep, sit in chairs, drive cars, etc.
Deaf and dumb/deaf-mute: Avoid these terms as they are often used inaccurately and can be offensive. Background: Dumb was once widely used to describe a person who could not speak and implied the person was incapable of expressing himself or herself. Deaf-mute was used to refer to people who could neither speak nor hear. People living with speech and hearing disabilities are capable of expressing themselves in writing, through sign language and in other ways. Additionally, a person who does not use speech may be able to hear.
Defect: Avoid these terms when describing a disability because they imply the person is somehow incomplete or sub-par. Background: A defect is defined as an imperfection or shortcoming. A birth defect is a physical or biochemical abnormality that is present at birth. Many people consider such terms offensive when describing a disability as they imply the person is deficient or inferior to others.NCDJ Recommendation: Avoid using defect or defective when describing a disability. Instead, state the nature of the disability or injury.
Demented, senile: Avoid describing someone as being demented or senile. Use people-first language when describing someone with dementia, such as “a person with dementia.” Mentally retarded: Always try to specify the type of disability being referenced. Otherwise, the terms mental disability, intellectual disability and developmental disability are acceptable.
Background: The terms mentally retarded, retard and mental retardation were once common terms that are now considered outdated and offensive. In 2010, President Barack Obama signed a measure known as “Rosa’s Law” that replaced the term mental retardation with intellectual disability in many areas of government, including federal law.
Midget: The term was used in the past to describe an unusually short and proportionate person. It is now widely considered derogatory. Background: Dwarfism is a medical or genetic condition that results in a stature below 4’10,” according to Little People of America. The terms little people and little person refer to people of short stature and have come into common use since the founding of the Little People of America organization in 1957.
Paraplegic: Avoid referring to an individual as a paraplegic. Instead, say the person has paraplegia. Background: Paraplegia is defined as the impairment or loss of movement in the lower extremities and torso. It is typically caused by a spinal cord or brain injury. Referring to someone as a paraplegic is offensive to some as it implies that their condition defines them.NCDJ Recommendation: Avoid referring to an individual as a paraplegic. Instead, say the person has paraplegia.Sometimes people with paraplegia refer to themselves as a “para.” If so, use in quotes.
Schizophrenic: Use people-first language, stating that someone is “a person with schizophrenia” or “a person diagnosed with schizophrenia” rather than a schizophrenic or a schizophrenic person. Background: Schizophrenia is a severe and chronic mental illness characterized by distorted recognition and interpretations of reality, affecting how an individual thinks, feels and acts, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Common symptoms include visual and auditory hallucinations, delusional and disordered thinking, unresponsiveness, a lack of pleasure in daily life and other social issues. It does not involve split personalities. NCDJ Recommendation: Refer to someone as having schizophrenia only if the information is relevant* to the story and if the person has been formally diagnosed by a licensed medical professional. Use people-first language, stating that someone is “a person with schizophrenia,” “a person living with schizophrenia” or “a person diagnosed with schizophrenia” rather than a schizophrenic or a schizophrenic person. Do not use the word schizophrenic colloquially as a synonym for something inconsistent or contradictory.
Vegetable: Use people-first language, such as “a person in a vegetative state.” Avoid referring to someone as a vegetable or “veg” as such words dehumanize the person.
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