Five Tips for Writing About People with Disabilities
Googling "disability etiquette" returns dozens of guides and references for interacting with people with disabilities. While helpful for daily use, these resources often don't cover one crucial area: how to write about people with disabilities.
Using information from the National Center on Disability and Journalism and the Mayo Clinic, we developed our own internal style guide. Feel free to download the PDF for your personal or professional use. In the meantime, here are our five best tips for writing about people with disabilities.
1. Use person first language.
Emphasize the person rather than their disability. Place value on the individual, rather than the condition that he or she has. Draw attention to ability rather than disability.
Do: Laura, my roomate, is living with a disability. She uses a wheelchair.
Don't: I have a disabled roomate. He's bound to a wheelchair.
2. Avoid unnecessary attention.
Think of disability like race: don't mention it unless there's a valid reason. Only use descriptions of disability that are relevant to the heart of the story.
Do: He started monoskiing after a spinal cord injury that resulted in paraplegia.
Don't: He's a great lawyer who uses a wheelchair.
3. Be neutral.
Avoid excessive emotionality when describing people with disabilities. Disability, like any other topic a journalist reports on, should be described using fair, objective and neutral language. Avoid terms like suffers from, afflicted with, bound, confined, sentenced to, prisoner or victim as these terms imply that the person has a reduced quality of life. Similarly, avoid cliches like inspirational, in spite of and overcame. Both positive and negative emotional words are unfairly biased.
Do: He loves to use his adaptive bicycle to go on hikes with his son.
Don't: After being confined to a wheelchair, he overcame his disability by taking up handcycling.
4. Use the words "deaf" and "blind" in conjunction with modified descriptions.
Use both of these words as adjectives, not nouns. Remember that disabilities exist on a spectrum, and use modified terms for people without total hearing or vision loss. Appropriate terms include hearing impaired, visually impaired, hard of hearing, limited vision, partial hearing loss, and low vision. Capitalize Deaf when referring to the Deaf community, or when the person you are writing about capitalizes it when referring to themself.
Do: Students with visual impairments hiked to the top of Mt. Crested Butte this week.
Don't: The blind student completed a three hour hike today.
If you don’t know how to describe something, ask someone who does. Often, the best course of action is to ask the person you are writing about what he or she prefers. Use accurate descriptions of disabilities, especially of the mental disorders which are frequently reclassified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). For example, in the latest version — the DSM-5 — Attention Deficit Disorder was eliminated. Now the appropriate way to describe the condition is to use the term Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
Do: He has a level C5 spinal cord injury.
Don't: He uses a wheelchair because he hurt his back.
For a complete list of appropriate references to more than 30 disabilities, check out the full version of our style guide here.