Reporting it right

Graham Clements
The media often uses inappropriate words when talking about people with disabilities. So a set of guidelines have been written to help the media portray people with a disability. The "Reporting it Right" guidelines are written by the Department of Human Services. The guidelines ask people with disabilities be portrayed as people first. They also suggest not using very emotive language when describing people with disabilities. To help the media, the guidelines list acceptable terms for describing disabilities.
Posted by: 
Graham Clements on 14/11/2012
Woman who uses a wheelchair chatting with another woman. Text - Writer or journalist?
Media guidelines cropped

Portray people with a disablity as real people.

Some people in the media just don't know how to refer to someone with a disability. They might not be aware how to describe someone who is blind or vision impaired, or how to refer to someone who uses a wheelchair. Some people in the media worry about how to mention a person's disability.

People with disabilities can get annoyed with how they are described in the media. Most dislike being labelled disabled, which makes it sound like they are broken down and won't be going anywhere until fixed. Hopefully calling someone disabled will disappear like the offensive terms handicapped or special. Ill-considered words can hurt, so the media needs to be sensitive when describing people with a disability.

Reporting it Right

To help the media, the Department of Human Services has released a set of guidelines called Reporting it Right. The guidelines are about how the media should portray people with a disability.

Real successful people

The report says that people with a disability should be portrayed as real people, rather than as heroic, inspirational, victims or sufferers. After all, they have jobs, families, talents, opinions and faults, just like everyone else.

The guidelines ask that the achievements of people with a disability not be sensationalised. There are millions of people with disabilities so it should not surprise that many are successful.

Similarly, terms like overcoming the odds imply that people with a disability are not usually successful.

Describing a disability

The guidelines suggest avoiding overly emotive language to describe a person's disability. Calling a person's circumstances tragic can devalue their life. People can view their lives and disabilities differently. To avoid incorrect assumptions, the media should ask how a person wants their disability described. They may find a person does not want their disability mentioned at all.

The media needs to be careful with the emphasis they place on a person's disability. For example, if writing an article about author M J Hyland, the media should ask whether it is necessary to mention she has multiple sclerosis (MS). Her MS is irrelevant if the article is a review of one of her novels, unless one of the novel's characters has a similar disability. But if the article is about M J Hyland's life as an author her MS could be relevant.

Disabled or person with a disability?

The report lists many acceptable terms and phrases for people with disabilities. Person with a disability has been used throughout this article instead of disabled person. Some other examples are:

  • Person with a physical disability instead of physically challenged
  • Person who is blind instead of the blind or blind people
  • Person with a mental illness instead of insane or mentally disabled
  • Person who uses a wheelchair instead of confined to a wheelchair or wheelchair-bound
  • Person without a disability instead of normal or non-disabled.

Notice how the terms all put a person before the disability. This is because the majority of people with a disability do not want to be defined by their disability. We are a person first.

The media guidelines are available from the Department of Human Services

Reporting it right

Readers comments (7)

I've often used the term "person with a vision impairment" because blindness varies from person to person (my vision-impaired flatmate taught be this).
and person first is always good - I don't always remember it, but I'm learning.
I'd describe myself as a person living with a mental illness, or a person in recovery from a mental illness, or more specifically, depression and anxiety disorder.
I usually say "able-bodied people" or "sighted people", depending on the context. and in contrast to "people living with a mental illness" or "people identifying as having a mental illness", I'd say "people without a diagnosis of mental illness".

While I agree with the basic idea of this sort of action (educating people more about language in the disability sector), I don't always agree with the rules that are laid down. Terms like "invalid" and "crazy" I think are completely reprehensible, but most of that stuff is long gone I hope.
However, occasionally I think that we are being hypersensitive. I certainly understand why someone with a disability may not want to be called a disabled person. Although, I have not read this report, I remember reading a similar document saying that the person should be referred to only in an active way rather than passively. I am the first to say that "WORDS MEAN THINGS", but when you are not meant to refer to a wheelchair user, but rather a person who uses a wheelchair, then I think it's going a little too far.
I find it as frustrating how often words like inclusiveness, integration and empowerment are used in the disability sector.

Hear, hear!

I have been following the responses to "Reporting it Right" today and the argument about person first language. Stella Young's response was particularly good, as always. However in my opinion what is more important than language is attitude. Language will always be changing, not so long a go Scope was referred to as the Spastic Society, how shocking! As a person who has cerebral palsy I don't care what you call me so long as you realise and acknowledge that I am just as capable as anybody else. If you call me spastic based on the assumption I am stupid that will anger me. Call me spastic sarcastically whilst acknowledging all my strengths, I will love you forever, just ask my wife!

I think you are exactly right William. The term retard gets tossed about in my house (by myself). The mindset of people when they encounter someone with a disability is probably more important, but still you wouldn't want to see the real derogatory language, like that, used in the media. Just like in articles I don't call the people who really irritate me d***heads or worse. And indeed that's what crosses my mind when I have one of these encounters with ignorant people.

A lot of the negative responses to the report seem to me to be from people who want to have a rant about political correctness and add nothing to the debate.

Most of the comments also are on the terminology section at the end of the report, there are some other very useful, in my opinion, sections of the report, particularly about not sensationalising the achievements of people with a disability.

William Crisp says "However in my opinion what is more important than language is attitude." One very important way to change attitudes is to change the language those attitudes are framed with.

The report is only a set of suggestions, they are not rules.

As a writer, I find the guidelines very useful.

Hi Gary B,

I suggest you read the report, it is only short, and would take half an hour at most.

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