Writing About Disability

One of the first and most significant steps to changing negative stereotypes and attitudes toward people with disabilities begins when we rethink the way written and spoken images are used to portray people with disabilities. The following is a brief, but important, list of suggestions for portraying people with disabilities in the media.

People with disabilities are not “handicapped,” unless there are physical or attitudinal barriers that make it difficult for them to participate in everyday activities. An office building with steps and no entry ramp creates a “handicapping” barrier for people who use wheelchairs. In the same way, a hotel that does not have a TTY/telephone (teletypewriter) creates a barrier for someone who is hearing disabled. It is important to focus on the person, not necessarily the disability. In writing, name the person first and then, if necessary, explain his or her disability. The same rule applies when speaking. Don’t focus on someone’s disability unless it’s crucial to the point being made.

In long, written materials, when many references have been made to persons with disabilities or someone who is disabled, it is acceptable for later references to refer to “disabled persons” or “disabled individuals.”

Because a person is not a condition or a disease, avoid referring to someone with a disability by his or her disability alone. For example, don’t say someone is a “post-polio” or a “C.P.” or an “epileptic.” Refer instead to someone who has post-polio syndrome, or has cerebral palsy, or has epilepsy.

Don’t use “disabled” as a noun because it implies a state of separateness. “The disabled” are not a group apart from the rest of society. When writing or speaking about people with disabilities, choose descriptive words and portray people in a positive light.

Avoid words with negative connotations:

  • Avoid calling someone a “victim.”
  • Avoid referring to people with disabilities as “cripples” or “crippled.” This is negative and demeaning language.
  • Don’t write or say that someone is “afflicted.”
  • Avoid the word “invalid” as it means, quite literally, “not valid.”
  • Write or speak about people who use wheelchairs. Wheelchair users are not “wheelchair bound.”
  • Refer to people who are not disabled as “nondisabled” or “able-bodied.” When you call non-disabled people “normal,” the implication is that people with disabilities are not normal.
  • Someone who is disabled is only a patient to his or her physician or in a reference to medical treatment.
  • Avoid cliches. Don’t use “unfortunate,” “pitiful,” “poor,” “dumb,” “crip,” “deformed,” “retard,” “blind as a bat” or other patronizing and demeaning words.
  • In the same vein, don’t glamorize or make heroes of people with disabilities simply because they have adapted to their disabilities.

Your concerted efforts to use positive, non-judgmental respectful language when referring to people with disabilities in writing and in everyday speaking can go a long way toward helping to change negative stereotypes.