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Language and Usage Guide for Reporters and Editors

copyright 1992 The Advocado Press, Inc.


The 1987 edition of the Associated Press Stylebook for the first time contained an entry under "handicapped." The appearance of the category was the result of work by disability organizations -- primarily the Research and Training Center on Independent Living at the University of Kansas -- to change the way in which reporters and editors wrote about disability.

The Stylebook was a start. Since then, many disability organizations have produced sets of guidelines for avoiding demeaning and sensationalized words and phrases when writing about people with disabilities. The fact that so many groups see this as an area for concern should alert journalists to the fact that the way they use words does matter. Two simple rules should be kept in mind when writing stories about people who have disabilities:

1. Avoid cliches and cliched constructions.

2. Use "value-neutral" terms and constructions. Don't interject your admiration -- or pity -- into your story.


People with disabilities do not agree on the best terms to use in describing themselves. In this they are similar to other minorities who did not settle on what they were to be called until their movement gained some prominence in the press. People who we once called "colored" or "Negro" we next called "black" and are now often referring to as "African-American." Until recently, the term of choice was "black." "Black" itself became accepted terminology only during the "black power" days of the Civil Rights movement. Prior to that, the "correct" term had been "Negro." "Colored" was also used. Years ago, of course, "nigger" was also used.

Today the word "nigger" is taboo. Yet, we know that some African-Americans will use the term "nigger" among themselves. We know, however, that the press is not to use it. And we adhere to that rule. We also know that some African-Americans, particularly elderly African-Americans, refer to themselves as "colored" or "negro." Yet we do not then use either of these terms in writing about them. The term still used by the news media often is "black" -- although "African-American" is replacing it.

The disability community is still in the process of deciding how to refer to its members. Many new terms are being tried out. Some disabled people are beginning to refer to themselves as "physically challenged" or "handicapable" or "inconvenienced"; others continue to refer to themselves as "victims" or "crippled." However, none of these terms is acceptable usage for news media.


Most people involved in disability issues today see "disabled" or "disability" as terms of choice. Many want journalists to write "person with a disability" rather than "disabled person." A number of groups issue pamphlets explaining that the "person should come first." The terms "handicap" and "handicapped" have been used in much legislation concerning disabled people. During the 1960s and early 1970s, it was the word of choice. It fell into disrepute, however, when leaders of the disability rights movement insisted it was a term coined by special education professionals and not a term the movement chose. Today, most disability groups are changing the "handicap" in their titles to "disability."


Within the disability rights movement, individuals may refer to themselves as "crips," "gimps," "deafies," "paras," and "quads." These are "in" terms within the movement. While an interview subject may use them, they are still considered slang and are not ordinarily to be used by the press.


While many prefer that journalists use "people (or persons) with disabilities," they accept "disabled people" as a substitute. The phrase "the disabled" is not good usage. Since "disabled" is an adjective, it's important to avoid ridiculous -- and improper -- constructions such as "disabled group" or "disabled rights" or "disabled transportation." Instead, build phrases using the word "disability."

  • "the disability movement"
  • "the disability rights movement"
  • "disability activists"
  • "disability advocates"
  • "disability community"

    When you're writing a housing story, you refer to the people affected as "residents." When writing an election wrap-up, you use the term "voters." Use these kinds of group nouns when referring to disabled people, too, to vary the "people with disabilities" phrase.

    Possible terms could include:

  • voters with disabilities
  • disabled shoppers
  • disabled travelers
  • residents who have disabilities
  • disabled opponents (or proponents)

    Avoid terms beginning with "the" followed by an adjective, such as:

  • "the disabled"
  • "the blind"
  • "the handicapped"
  • "the retarded"

    Instead, use:

  • blind protesters
  • deaf students
  • people with head injuries
  • people with disabilities

    Avoid making nouns out of conditions. Don't write that someone was "a retard" or "a handicap" -- even if your interview subject uses the term in this fashion.


    Frequently, one will see a term such as "handicapped parking" or "handicapped seating." The construction is incorrect. ("Disabled organization" is wrong, too.) Think through the concept to figure out a cleaner, more accurate way to express it. Some options include:

  • accessible seating
  • parking for disabled people
  • disability organization


    The single greatest harm done disabled people in writing about them is to give them the added emotional baggage of sensationalized words and phrases describing their disabling condition. It's done so much -- and so unconsciously -- that it creeps into the ordinary language used to refer to disability conditions. Some editors will insist, for example, that disabled people are "afflicted with" AIDS or are "victims" of multiple sclerosis. Gradually, however, more individuals with disabilities are insisting the language used to describe them be emotionally neutral.

    Emotionally loaded language is to be avoided. Avoid using "suffers from," "afflicted with," "bound," "confined," "sentenced to," "prisoner," "victim," or any other term or colorful phrase that conjures up tragedy.

    The goal is to write about people with disabilities in a nonjudgmental fashion. Simple terms like "had polio" should replace "suffers from" or "afflicted with." "In" or "uses a wheelchair" does nicely as a replacement for "prisoner of" or "confined to." Most of the time, no term at all is needed other than, perhaps a reference, if relevant to the story, that the person "uses a wheelchair" or "is deaf."


    Many trendy terms crop up that should be avoided. "Physically challenged," "inconvenienced," "differently abled" and "handi-capable" are among the more recent terms. They act as euphemisms and are best avoided. Stick to "disability" or" disabled." This also is true of terms such as "temporarily able-bodied." Stick to "nondisabled."

    Many reporters and editors believe that if people have a disability, they must be heroic, courageous, inspiring, or special. These terms have become knee-jerk descriptors. Most disabled people resent having such language applied to them. Avoid referring to a person with a disability as "courageous," "heroic," "inspiring," "special," or "brave."


    Many journalists -- and copy editors -- feel no story about a disabled person should be without the terms "overcame her disability" or "in spite of his handicap." Beyond being trite and overworked, these terms inaccurately reflect the problems disabled people face.

    Disabled people do not succeed "in spite of" their disabilities as much as they succeed "in spite of" an inaccessible and discriminatory society. They do not "overcome" their handicaps so much as "overcome" prejudice.

    Using the term "overcome" inaccurately suggests that the task at hand is for a disabled person to somehow solve discrimination by himself or herself. This is much the same as suggesting a woman act like a man or a black person overcome race and try to act more white. The concepts themselves are flawed; they should be avoided.


    The term "special" as in "special education" has been, is, and will be used to refer to efforts made to meet group and individual educational needs. However, the term "special" has come to be used as a euphemism for segregated programs or physical facilities that are almost always inferior to what is available to nondisabled individuals. "Special" has definite negative connotations within the disability rights movement.

    If you are using the term "special" to mean "separate," use "separate" instead. Instead of writing, "special buses for the disabled," write, "separate buses for disabled people." For "special handicap bathroom," write, "separate bathroom."

    If you are using the term "special" to mean "disabled," use "disabled" or "disability" instead.

    In general, avoid the term, except when you must refer to it as part of a title, such as Special Olympics or Department of Special Education.


    If you get tired of using "person with a disability" and find it hard to come up with new ways to say "disabled person," ask yourself: Is any description needed at all?

    Sometimes journalists unnecessarily refer to disability when it is not relevant to the story. Apply the same rules you'd use covering an African-American: If there's no impelling need to discuss the disability of the person in the story, leave it out.

    DON'Ts AND DOs

  • Don't use "victim of," "victim," "afflicted with," "suffers from," "stricken with." Do write, "has" (or "had") if relevant to story; otherwise, don't use at all.

  • Don't use "confined to a wheelchair." Do write, "in a (uses a) wheelchair."

  • Don't use "wheelchair-bound," "prisoner of," "abnormal," "defective," "invalid." Use nothing; no term is needed.

  • Don't use "special" bus, "special" bathroom. Do write, "separate bus," "segregated bathroom."

  • Don't use "physically (or mentally) challenged." Do write, "person with a disability" or "disabled person."

  • Don't use "inconvenienced." Do write, "person with a disability" or "disabled person."

  • Don't use "handi-capable." Do write, "person with a disability" or "disabled person."

  • Don't use "deaf-mute." Do write, "deaf"; "hearing impaired."

  • Don't use "in spite of disability." Avoid the concept altogether.

  • Don't use "overcame her handicap." Avoid the concept altogether.

  • Don't use "handicapped parking." Do write, "accessible parking."

  • Don't use "disabled seating." Do write, "seating for viewers in wheelchairs."

    copyright 1992 The Advocado Press, Inc.




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