Tuesday, May 1, 2012

I edit for people-first language

Blogging Against Disablism
In what could be considered as much a beat-blog about editing as it is “Blogging Against Disablism,” I would like to discuss an edit that I frequently make to press releases submitted to my employer, a Northern California newspaper.

Often when I receive press releases from agencies that serve people with developmental disabilities, I am surprised that these agencies refer to their clients as “the disabled” or “the developmentally disabled.”

Surprised because I thought the respectful, widespread practice was to use people-first language in an effort to combat harmful stereotypes.

When I encounter press releases that refer to the “the developmentally disabled,” I edit them to instead describe their clients as “people with developmental disabilities.”

I take as my guideline, the Associated Press Stylebook. Where it is silent on subjects that pertain to people with disabilities, I consult a style guide that has been prepared by the National Center on Disability and Journalism:
“When describing an individual, do not reference his or her disability unless it is clearly pertinent to a story. If it is pertinent, it is best to use language that refers to the person first and the disability second.”
 What is at stake with depictions in the media? Here’s a quote from the Texas Council for Developmental Disabilities:
“Historically, people with disabilities have been regarded as individuals to be pitied, feared or ignored. They have been portrayed as helpless victims, repulsive adversaries, heroic individuals overcoming tragedy, and charity cases who must depend on others for their well being and care. Media coverage frequently focused on heartwarming features and inspirational stories that reinforced stereotypes, patronized and underestimated individuals' capabilities.
“Much has changed lately. New laws, disability activism and expanded coverage of disability issues have altered public awareness and knowledge, eliminating the worst stereotypes and misrepresentations. Still, old attitudes, experiences and stereotypes die hard.
“People with disabilities continue to seek accurate portrayals that present a respectful, positive view of individuals as active participants of society, in regular social, work and home environments. Additionally, people with disabilities are focusing attention on tough issues that affect quality of life, such as accessible transportation, housing, affordable health care, employment opportunities and discrimination.”
For readers who are unfamiliar with my blog, I would like to explain that people-first language isn’t just a professional exercise for me. I think about its implications when describing myself.

As a woman who is on autism spectrum, I might use the words “autistic” and “Aspergian” to describe me and my tendencies. On other occasions, I may describe myself as “a woman with autism” or “a woman on the autism spectrum.”

Because I reside on the autism continuum, I think personally about portrayals in the media and implications of using a label like “developmentally disabled.”

As an editor I consult the style guide and make my edits accordingly to promote accurate, respectful portrayals of people with disabilities.

Additional resources for people-first language:

This blog is part of “Blogging Against Disablism,” a web project for May 1.


  1. There's also a big difference between saying "disabled people" and "the disabled." In the latter, you have removed the people entirely. Only the most blatant bigots (or members of the community using irony) would say something like, "the gays" or "the Jews," but progressive organizations and publications still say, "the disabled" all the time. I hate that.

    P.S. Are you aware that captcha (word verification) is required to post comments here? That prevents some people with disabilities from commenting. Blogger has changed some things, so I think some people don't realize it's on on their blogs now.

    1. I just tried commenting to another entry to try to duplicate your experience but maybe since I am logged in, it decided not to impose the Captcha.

      Thanks for bringing this to my attention; I hate captcha and I wonder if there's a way to disconnect it.

      The letters are so visually distorted that I can't decipher them so I try the audio and it's completely garbled.

      I have issues with Google's accessibility to begin with, i.e. using abstract pictorial icons instead of clearly labeled menu functions.

    2. I disabled the Captcha on my blog. If you go into your settings, under posts and comments, you can turn word verification off.

    3. OK, I think I have done that now. Thanks for the information about where to look.

  2. I agree with this so much. Not everyone wants the person first designation, but I think it's the best way to go when generalizing. Definitely, the "person" should be included somewhere. I like that you describe yourself and your tendencies sometimes as aspergian. I have aspergers too and sometimes it seems like it affects so much of what I do that it undercuts every part of my identity, but sometimes it doesn't. You don't always have to feel the same way, and you don't always have to identify the same way. This is a really great post. Thank you. :)

  3. Interesting, I like identity first, I am a disabled person and an autistic person, I use disabled people, the important is using people, I would never use the disabled.
    I think my identities are important in my life and being disabled is really an important aspect, I think because I'm involved in disability rights and culture.
    Not all countries use people first language, people that follow the social model might use both kinds.
    The important is to respect the choice of the people and community involved.

  4. I really think we shouldn't worry about the language, but the message. My second cousin is one of least racist people I know, but he's also an uneducated trucker who uses terms like 'Paki'. The important thing is that he treats all people with respect, not what he calls them.

    1. Respectfully, I disagree. Using derogatory terms is never an element of treating people with respect - the two are mutually exclusive. Intent is not magic, and words matter.

  5. I'm also surprised when I see "disabled people" or "the disabled" (thankfully, I don't see the latter very often). I'd rather use "people-first" language as much as possible, even if it makes the sentences a little more cumbersome.

    I see Ettina's point (coming from a rural area where people grow up with offensive terminology and use it without being aware of it's meaning), but words do matter...even joking words can hurt, right?

    1. Yes, I can see the point that people are ignorant of the meanings of words sometimes, but that doesn't mean it's okay to keep using them. I'm fine with it if someone says something offensive and I get a positive response when I let them know, politely, that the word has a negative connotation. What makes me mad is the situations where people tell me "It doesn't mean that anymore" or "you're weak for getting offended" or "I was just joking, take a joke" or any number of other similar responses.

    2. Oh, definitely. There seems to be a perception out there that "political correctness is out of control and I'm not letting it dictate how I should speak", and people can't seem to see that this isn't about being politically correct - it's about extending a common courtesy, by not referring to someone in offensive terms. The attempts to justify using "retarded" in particular really annoy me.

    3. Yeah, I'm not sure when common curtesy became "excessive" political correctness... The r-word really irritates me too, and i'm also not a fan of the increased use of "aspie" in the same context. It bugs me when people justify using slurs with "but my friend/brother/sister/cousin/etc belongs to that groups and doesn't mind"

  6. A great share via Lynne Soraya about disability terminology. Among them: people-first language instead of collective "disabled," wheelchair user, not "wheelchair-bound," mirror the preferred language when speaking of an individual, etc. http://lynnesoraya.visibli.com/share/YqJTKs

  7. S.E. Smith is the author of the piece, shared via Lynne Soraya. Sorry I didn't make that clearer.


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