Word choice matters when writing about people with disabilities

Blog Post created by lisabraxton Employee on Feb 27, 2013

Wheelchair imageFor years, disabilities advocates have pushed for society to make better word choices when communicating about people with disabilities. While there are clear signs of progress, this headline, which appeared recently in The New York Times, provides an example of the work that still needs to be done:

“Device Offers Partial Vision for the Blind”

Linda Woodbury is chair of the Public Education Division’s Fire Safety for People with Disabilities Task Force, which advises NFPA on developing fire safety educational materials to ensure that they depict people with disabilities in a positive and correct manner. The task force also reviews existing NFPA educational materials for sensitivity, accuracy, and inclusiveness of people with disabilities. Woodbury says the language in The New York Times headline borders on being insensitive and rude.

“When ‘the blind’ is used, it sounds like we are discussing a group of people, all of whom are alike. It’s like calling people who are overweight ‘the fat,' she said. “I’m a person with a heart, likes and dislikes. I also happen to be blind. The most appropriate term to use is ‘people who are blind’ or a ‘person who is blind.”

Woodbury’s suggested choice of phrasing is an example of ‘people first’ language, in which the person is emphasized, not the disability. By placing the person first, the disability is no longer the primary, defining characteristic of the individual, but one of several aspects of the whole person. This headline recently appeared in several Georgia media outlets’ online news stories and social networking sites:

“Sumner wheelchair bound teen, family escapes fire”

“Of the thousands of people I know who use wheelchairs, none of them are ‘bound’ to that chair,” Woodbury said. “The word ‘bound’ brings forth a picture of a human who is tied or somehow shackled into a chair like a prisoner. However, even those who must remain in their chair all day are moved or make their own transfer to the bed, the car. Better to say, “He uses a wheelchair.”

The language we use, whether in news coverage, advertising, or informal conversation, shapes the perception of that group. Our words drive social policy and laws, influence decisions, and affect people’s daily lives. How we use our words makes a difference.