Some terms are offensive.
Today's topic is the language of disability and disease. When I was a technical writer, questions came up all the time about how to write about people with medical conditions. So today, Bonnie Trenga will educate us.
When tackling how to refer to people who have disabilities or who suffer from illnesses, the bottom line is that we need to be sensitive to the feelings of others.
The Two Extremes
I’m glad to report that times have changed. It’s no longer acceptable to say a sentence such as “Hey, I saw a deaf and dumb cripple today.” That would be extremely offensive (1, 2). Here is a list of words you need to wipe from your vocabulary unless you’re writing a character who likes to be offensive: “crippled,” “mute,” “deaf-mute,” and “deaf and dumb” (3).
On the other end of the spectrum, some people have been too eager to create euphemisms for diseases or conditions in an effort to make such conditions seem less of a big deal, but euphemisms such as “differently abled” and “handicapable” are now considered condescending (4). There’s no reason to try to be too nice about it.
The Middle Road
So how do people who can’t walk or people who can’t hear wish to be referred to? The preferred terms to use these days are “disability” and “disabled.” These words have replaced “handicap” and “handicapped.” It’s no longer OK to call someone “handicapped” (5), but it is acceptable to use “handicapped” in common phrases such as “handicapped parking.”
If you must refer to someone with a disability, it’s a good idea to put the person first. So it’s better to say, “He is a person with disabilities” than “He is disabled” or “He is a disabled person.” The phrase “a person with cerebral palsy” might sound a bit awkward, but since people with disabilities and the organizations that serve them might prefer this phrasing, we should respect their wishes (4).
Now that society is more sensitive to all its members, we need to follow disability etiquette. The United Spinal Association, for example, offers online a 36-page PDF on how to be sensitive to people with all kinds of disabilities (there's a link in the references at the bottom of this transcript) . The Association reminds us, “People with disabilities are individuals with families, jobs, hobbies, likes and dislikes, and problems and joys. While the disability is an integral part of who they are, it alone does not define them. Don’t make them into disability heroes or victims. Treat them as individuals” (6).
You might be wondering how to refer to people with vision, hearing, and mobility problems or specific diseases. It’s OK to refer to someone as “blind,” but it’s better to say, “a person who is blind” than “a blind person” (2), although organizations that serve people who are blind have names that reflect the old way of thinking, for example The American Council of the Blind. On the site for the Perkins School of the Blind, for instance, people who are blind are referred to as “people with visual impairments” and “people who are visually impaired” (7).
You can refer to a person who can’t hear or who has partial hearing loss as “hard of hearing” or “deaf.” There’s no need to avoid the term “deaf.” In fact, there is a Deaf culture, where Deaf has a capital D. Members of the Deaf culture “belong to the community that has formed around the use of American Sign Language as the preferred means of communication” (8).
As for someone who is in a wheelchair, you can just say, “wheelchair user.” It’s considered inappropriate to say, “confined to a wheelchair” (6).
And as for people who suffer from any number of illnesses, from asthma to diabetes to cancer, you could just say something like “a person who suffers from asthma” or “a person who has diabetes.” Sure the people might be asthmatic or diabetic, but that’s not who the people are. Their disease doesn't define them.
In summary, no matter what disability someone has, you need to be polite and sensitive to that person and use an appropriate term.
This podcast was written by Bonnie Trenga, author of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier, who blogs at sentencesleuth.blogspot.com, and I'm Mignon Fogarty, the author of the paperback book Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. That's all. Thanks for listening.
1. American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, p. 132.
2. American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, pp. 62-3.
3. American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, p. 310.
4. American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, pp. 142-3.
5. American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, p. 213.
6. "Disability Etiquette," United Spinal Association, http://www.unitedspinal.org/pdf/DisabilityEtiquette.pdf. (accessed Oct. 19, 2008).
7. Perkins School for the Blind. http://www.perkins.org/perkinsvision/. (accessed Oct. 19, 2008).
8. American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, p. 131.