I love Radio New Zealand. I am a passionate fan of the great programmes they make and play. As a professional journalist I have contributed to several of their programmes over the years, and made an award winning documentary. But the one thing that makes me grit my teeth is the language some broadcasters use around disability. Of course they are no worse than any other media. Everyone does it.
I don’t like to whinge without offering a solution. So here is a little guide, not new I know, and I have written on the subject before in this blog Language disables us but a few simple pointers might be useful and help some people avoid annoying euphemisms such as “differently abled.” This term has never been generally used in New Zealand except by a few US inspired educators who have since learned the error of their ways. We are not freaks with “special” powers. Using such language gets in the way of whatever else you as a journalist or broadcaster are trying to say.
In New Zealand the terms “disabled people” or “people with disabilities” are usually considered accurate and respectful for general use. Either will do. Some people want to be thought of as people first, rather than focusing on disability.
I prefer “disabled people” because it is shorter, easier to type, and reflects my identity. More importantly it explains an understanding that I have a vision impairment. Disability is what happens to me when the society I live in is designed to exclude people who have impairments, not usually intentionally. Some examples for me are the squitchy fonts people use on the essential bits of their business cards, the horrible Wellington bus signage, the paling of the Internet and the thoughtless use of language that diminishes my humanity.
There are a few points for journos and broadcasters who want to avoid the latter.
- “Disableist” language is like sexist and racist language and can have the same kind of negative impact on individuals and groups of people.
- Do use the terms disabled people or people with disabilities when talking or writing about us.
- Do use neutral language. A person has a condition, rather than suffering from it, they may use a wheelchair rather than being confined to it. Negatively loaded terms such as “the disabled” or “handicapped” are not neutral and are generally loathed.
- Do talk about a person’s impairment only if it is strictly relevant to the story.
- Do use language correctly – Use of the term schizophrenic when you mean you have a dilemma or feel torn about something is wrong. It means something quite different.
- Do use disability terminology in the right context, not as a term of abuse or insult.
- It is OK to refer to Deaf as Deaf, but culturally and linguistically Deaf are not hard of hearing.
- It is absolutely OK to ask if you are not sure, for example, I prefer, if it is necessary, to be referred to as “partially sighted” or “vision impaired” rather than “partially blind.” I am a positive person. Others may have their own preferences.
The language we use about others defines us more than them. It is not about being PC, simply about respecting the dignity of other people.