Disability lingo – getting it right


Dignified way to find right words

Rather than focusing on remembering the nuances of political correctness, if you respect the person and see the individual and not just their disability, you will get it right, writes John Cradden

Wed, May 29, 2013

Is a person with autism someone who is mentally ill? Is a deaf person not hearing impaired? Is calling someone handicapped not acceptable anymore?

Journalists do sometimes struggle to find the most appropriate or acceptable ways to refer to people with disabilities, particularly if little is known about a specific illness, condition or disorder.

The Associated Press newswire in the US recently updated its guidance for reporters on how to write about mental illness and conditions such as autism, and which now advises them, among other things, to be as specific as possible when referring to a person’s mental illness and include examples of symptoms.

This addition to the widely used guide also advises journalists not to mention a diagnosis of autism, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or other common mental disorders unless it is germane to the story and properly sourced. It also notes that many experts do not classify autism as a mental illness but as a development disorder.

Pat Mathews of the Irish Society of Autism agrees. “Autism doesn’t come under the umbrella of mental illnesses. It’s a developmental disorder. It’s called autism spectrum disorder (ASD) because that reflects a broad spectrum encompassing those who would be quite handicapped to those who have Asperger’s.”

“It doesn’t fall under intellectual disability either, as a lot of the children who have ASD would have normal or above-normal intelligence,” he said.

There can be problems in finding the most broadly acceptable way to refer to well-known disabilities such as deafness, of which there are many degrees. Are they deaf or hearing impaired, hard of hearing or partially deaf?

Many deaf people don’t like the term “hearing impaired”. “The vast majority of people with deafness or hearing loss describe themselves as either deaf or hard of hearing,” says Brendan Lennon of Deafhear. “Hearing impaired is generally a term only used by medical or health professionals. I think I have only ever met one person who was insistent that she wanted to describe herself as hearing impaired.”

Brian Crean of the Irish Deaf Society agrees. “Hearing impaired can influence the greater population to think negatively of the deaf in that there is something impaired or wrong with us.” He also dismisses “partially deaf” as a medical term. “We all hardly ever talk about how deaf we are on our audiograms in any social gatherings. We’re all deaf, whether we’re partially or profoundly deaf.”

Other disability groups seem more relaxed about the lingo they use to describe themselves.

“No one has ever asked me what the right term is,” says Elaine Howley of the National Council of the Blind of Ireland.

She says the few people who are born totally blind tend not to have any issue with being called blind, but “the vast majority of us have impaired vision”, she says.

Impaired vision
“Partially sighted is the term they use in the UK. It’s the term they used to use here, but then about, I’d say, 25 years ago, there was a movement to change it to people who have impaired vision. We went through a period of using visually impaired, but now we talk about people whose vision is impaired or have impaired vision.”


“Talking about partially-sighted people, it’s kind of a moot point. For some people, it’s not upsetting at all or it doesn’t really matter, but for other people it is very important that the person comes first.”

“I always think a person is a person first . . . so for me, I always talk about people who are blind or people who have impaired vision because I don’t think the disability should ever come first.”

Nikki Hegarty of disability awareness organisation Kanchi also strongly advocates the use of “person-first” language, but also to avoid using negative descriptors, such as “sufferer” or “victim”. She concedes, however, that the influence of “political correctness” and a fear of causing offence has had the effect of stifling disability discourse.

“This is an issue because until we are willing to talk about disability, we will be unable to overcome the challenges being faced around the inclusion and valuing of people with disabilities in society,” she said.

“When we work with businesses and individuals we encourage them to think about two things instead of political correctness – dignity and respect. When it comes to language around disability and talking about and with people with disabilities, if you always respect the person and see the individual and not just their disability you will get it right. If in doubt, ask someone who knows. Even in our own organisation, we often reach out to others if we have a query.”

If there is ever a serious campaign to reduce the influence of political correctness, people with disabilities themselves are likely to be involved.

Comedian Laurence Clark last year wrote about how paralympic athletes are always described as inspirational, no matter how well they do. “It’s a bizarre form of political correctness,” he wrote.

Elaine Howley agrees that jokes and humour helps break the ice, but “it also depends on who you’re talking to”.

“When I’m talking to my friends, I can joke about the fact that I’m half-blind, or whatever but in my work context, it’s different. People who grow up with any disability, brought up with it, can laugh about it. People who acquire a disability, it’s a different thing, they can be vulnerable, so it can be inappropriate or insensitive.”



This article first appeared in the Irish Times

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