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Terminology Tips: Using the Appropriate Lexicon

The use of certain words or phrases can express bias either intentionally or unintentionally. Especially when working on a script, it is vital to ensure you are using appropriate terminology.

  • Disability language style guide: The National Center on Disability and Journalism (NCDJ) provides the industry’s only disability language style guide. The guide is intended for journalists, communication professionals 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. The guide covers general terms and words on physical disabilities, hearing and visual impairments, mental and cognitive disabilities and seizure disorders. Please note that many of the language suggestions found throughout this guide are based on these NCDJ guidelines.
  • Use person-first language to keep the person first, not his or her disability. Language shapes perceptions, so a small word choice can make a big difference in communicating attitudes toward people with disabilities and assumptions about the quality of their lives. Person-first language puts the person first instead of his or her disability. By referring to an individual as a “person with a disability” instead of a “disabled person,” you are providing an objective description instead of a label. While opinions differ on some words, the Research & Training Center on Independent Living at the University of Kansas offers a glossary of preferred terms for many visible and invisible disabilities, illustrated with person-first language.
  • If you are working with individuals with disabilities, ask them their preference. While many professionals within the disability community push person-first language (person with a disability), some individuals with disabilities prefer identity-first (disabled person). While it is generally a safe bet to use person-first language, there are members of certain disability groups in the United States who prefer not to use it. For example, some within the Deaf community prefer the term Deaf while some people who are blind prefer the term “blind.” Likewise, among people on the Autism spectrum, some prefer to be called Autistic people or Autistics. Their reasoning is that they consider their disabilities to be inseparable parts of who they are. Just as you may ask people for their gender pronoun preferences, you should ask people with disabilities you work with how they choose to be identified.
  • Think about other language that you use. What is considered acceptable language regarding disabilities has changed over time. Standards are changing as understanding evolves. Many once widely used terms now are considered offensive and are taken to imply inferiority or have other negative connotations. Other terms are outdated medical or colloquial terms. Avoid terms like “wheelchair-bound” and “suffers from.” People with disabilities are not “victims.” This companion piece to the National Center on Disability and Journalism’s Style Guide outlines some of the biggest mistakes to avoid.
  • People with disabilities should not be described as “inspirational” or “courageous” just because they have a disability. Inspiration porn is when people with disabilities are called inspirational or brave for doing something as simple as exercising or being invited to a prom. Per the TV show Speechless, “It’s a portrayal of people with disabilities as one-dimensional saints who only exist to warm the hearts and open the minds of able-bodied people.” Inspiration porn assumes that anyone with a disability must have it so much worse, and it uses people with disabilities to make nondisabled people feel good about themselves or to make them do something, like exercise. Falling into this trap leads to stigmatizing disabilities.
  • Use the word “disability.” Terms like “physically challenged,” “special” and “differently-abled” can be seen by some as patronizing. Saying “differently-abled” or “special,” for instance, may seem on the surface to convey that someone with a disability has positive qualities about him or her. However, terms like these tend to be euphemistic, and frequently are not used by the people to whom they refer. In addition, people with disabilities are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. People with “special needs” are not.
  • People without disabilities are not “normal.” Saying “normal” infers that people with disabilities are “abnormal.” While people without disabilities often are referred to as “able-bodied,” some members of the disability community oppose its use because it implies that all people living with disabilities lack “able bodies.” Instead, use the term “nondisabled,” “does not have a disability” or “is not living with a disability.” In some cases, the word “typical” can be used to describe a nondisabled condition.

NEWS ARTICLE: What Journalists Can Do Better to Cover the Disability Beat

A notebook that says "Reporter Note Book" on the coverThis article from the Columbia Journalism Review deals with important mistakes that journalists/reporters/storytellers make when telling stories about people with disabilities. Importantly, it also offers helpful hints. While aimed at journalists, the content of this piece is useful for entertainment professionals as well.

TED TALK: I’m Not Your Inspiration, Thank You Very Much

This TED talk given by comedian and journalist Stella Young discusses inspiration porn – a term she coined in an editorial written in 2012.

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