Guidelines for Reporting and Writing About People with Disabilities

Birth defect or congenital disability Fitconvulsion, or seizure?  Quadriplegicparaplegic, or person with a spinal cord injury?  Midgetdwarflittle person, or person of short stature?

The Research and Training Center on Independent Living at the University of Kansas publishes and updates a pamphlet called Guidelines for Reporting and Writing About Disabilities that is a helpful reference manual for understanding and using preferred and accurate terminology when writing on the subject of disabilities.

While there is not complete agreement on which terms are preferred, the booklet has been adopted into the Associated Press Stylebook, reflects the input of over 100 national disability organizations, and has been endorsed by the AIDS Action Council, National Down Syndrome Congress, Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, Brain Injury Association of America, Post-Polio Health International, the National Council for Independent Living and many others.

In addition to specific terminology, the manual provides some general guidelines, including:

  • Do not focus on disability unless it is crucial to a story.  Avoid tear-jerking human interest stories . . . Focus instead on issues that affect the quality of life for those same individuals . . .People with disabilities actively participate in their communities and can participate even more when portrayed just like anyone else in the community.
  • Put people first, not their disability.  Say woman with arthritis, a child who has a learning disability, or person with a disability.  This puts the focus on the individual, not the particular functioning limitation.  Labeling the person as the disability (for example, a quad) dehumanizes the individual and equates the condition with the person.
  • Do not portray successful people with disabilities as heroic overachievers or long suffering saints.  Even though the public may find these portrayals inspirational, these stereotypes raise false expectations that all people—with and without disabilities—should be such “super humans.”
  • Avoid sensationalizing and negative labeling.  Saying afflicted withcrippled with, victim of, or suffers from devalues individuals with disabilities by portraying them as helpless objects of pity and charity.  It is more neutral to say an individual with AIDS than a person who suffers from AIDS.   Similarly, do not use emotional descriptors such as unfortunate or pitiful.
  • Emphasize abilities, not limitations.  For example, uses leg braces or walks with crutches is more accurate thanconfined to a wheelchair or wheelchair bound.
  • Bypass condescending euphemisms.  Disability groups strongly object to the use of euphemisms to describe disabilities.  Terms such as handicapable, differently abled, special, and challenged reinforce the idea that people cannot deal honestly with their disabilities.
  • Maintain the integrity of each individual.  Do not use words or phrases regarded as offensive.
  • Do not imply disease when discussing disabilities that result from a prior disease episode.  People who had polio and experienced after effects have post-polio syndrome.  They are not currently experiencing the disease.  Do not imply disease with people whose disability has resulted from anatomical or physiological damage…Reference to disease associated with disability is acceptable only with chronic diseases, such as arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, or multiple sclerosis.