“The words that newspaper reporters and columnists choose to communicate the news
and voice opinions hold great power to define experience and shape ideas.” – The Toronto Star

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Issue 30   August, 2015

DFreelance writer Sue Hornerear Sue,
A recent newspaper article referred to someone as being “wheelchair bound.” This outdated reference sparked some research into the current wisdom on inclusive language related to disabilities.
Sue's signature
Put the person first,
not the disability

A wheelchair provides mobilityKathy English, Public Editor for the Toronto Star newspaper, once wrote about a reader who took offence at the phrase "falls on deaf ears" used in a headline.

A subsequent letter to the editor also pointed out these phrases as outdated and offensive: blind rage, blind drunk, robbed us blind, blind faith.
Language changes and evolves. And just as inclusive language means choosing gender-neutral words ("firefighter" rather than "fireman"), it also means neutral wording related to disabilities.

Here are seven tips for inclusive language:
  1. Think about whether you need to mention the disability. Often, it’s irrelevant, just as people's age, sex, colour or what they’re wearing may have no bearing on your story.
  2. Put the person first, not the disability. For example, "students with a disability," not "disabled students."
  3. When necessary, refer to the person's specific disability. For example, "A person with cerebral palsy."
  4. Avoid phrases like "suffers from," stricken with" or "victim of" that imply helplessness or evoke pity. People with disabilities aren't necessarily suffering, nor should they be shown as victims.
  5. The word "impaired" in American Sign Language implies intoxication; better to say "deaf" or "hard of hearing" instead of “hearing impaired.”
  6. Avoid expressions that imply restriction, such as "wheelchair-bound" or "confined to a wheelchair." A wheelchair is an aid to mobility. Why not say "uses a wheelchair," if it's really relevant at all?
  7. Don't sweep everyone into categories, such as "the blind" or "the disabled." People may have similar disabilities but they are all unique.
In general, using negative words to describe someone with a disability reflects and reinforces negative attitudes. Don't do it.
What other tips do you have for inclusive language? Hit “reply” and share. And let me know if you need help crafting your own inclusive communications.

This article updates a post that first appeared on my blog in 2008. Image: Sue by Rob Jeanveau of IABC/Golden Horseshoe.

Related links

Inclusive language guidelines from the HR Council, a resource for non-profits

The Toronto Star column by Kathy English

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