The “Blah Blah Blah” behind AP Style and the language of disabilities

The “Blah Blah Blah” behind AP Style and the language of disabilities

In an era where we can get slammed on social media for being overly sensitive to some things while not being sensitive enough on others, the last thing we may need is a new set of sanctioned terminology to use in our writing. 

For that reason alone, the purpose here is not to add a new layer of politically correct language to your writing. 

The AP Stylebook has already done the heavy lifting on how we should characterize people with disabilities in our writing. While some may or may not adhere to the style guide on this, it is good to know the thinking behind the writing style on this issue and why it should matter.

This came to light for me not too long ago when I had an exchange with a consumer reporter. You know the kind. You have a consumer problem, you call the reporter, and he saves the day, all the while portraying himself as the hero. 

In this case, he helped a woman who uses a wheelchair. He must have felt calling the woman “wheelchair-bound” only made the reporter himself look more heroic by making the woman at the center of this story look more pathetic.

I probably should have known better, but I decided to engage on this with the reporter, with whom I’ve dealt on a professional level in the past.  His response:

“My man…I love ya..u know it.  We've done some good stuff together…and will continue to do so. That being said…without any sort of PC discussion….a woman who is paralyzed from the waist down got screwed by (name of government agency).…that’s ALL I care about….it's ALL she cares about…

Funny…a big shot like u who makes his living dealing with similar folks needing a warrior found it more pertinent to discuss lingo…verbiage…nuance…..blah blah blah.”

Did he miss my point? Yes and no.

I happen to agree with him that when we debate over terminology, we can easily get caught in the weeds and lose sight of the big picture.  

At the same time, there are probably more than a few AP Stylebooks in his newsroom, and they are there for a reason. This has less to do with “blah blah blah” and more to do with accuracy and fairness.  

Let’s take a look at what the AP Stylebook might have told this reporter had he consulted it:

“Wheelchair-user- People use wheelchairs for independent mobility. Do not use confined to a wheelchair, or wheelchair-bound. If a wheelchair is needed, say why.”

For some, when the AP Stylebook weighs in on something, that’s good enough. We don’t need an explanation. If someone asks why we wrote something a certain way, we respond simply, “It’s AP Style.” Case closed.

But if you’re curious, it may help to know a little more why I made the decision to engage with this reporter and why words matter in this case.

In our profession, we all recognize the importance of word choice and the impact on communications. We also know that in the vast majority of instances with regard to disabilities, most writers have no desire to offend. But words not only reflect attitudes, but they also affect them.

In the case of our consumer reporter, his disrespectful language when perpetuated, can present even greater challenges to people with disabilities who often find that dealing with perceptions of dependence, not independence, are more daunting than whatever physical, intellectual or emotional challenges they may face.

It is precisely with this in mind that the concept of “people-first language” has emerged and has been incorporated to some extent into the AP Stylebook. It is the people-first thinking that drives the style guide here.  

So, rather than think about it as nuance, think about it as people-first as a philosophy of respect and priorities that comes through in your writing, one that puts the individual ahead of that individual’s limitation.  One that does not lazily identify someone by disability.

Here are some people-first guidelines that may help explain the rationale behind AP Style:

  • Refer to a person’s disability only when it’s relevant to the discussion.
  • When writing about accommodations, such as parking spaces, the people-first descriptor "accessible" is preferred over "handicapped", as in accessible parking spaces.
  • When writing about people without disabilities, particularly when a disability issue is part of story, know that when you call some “normal” or “healthy” you are by very clear implication labeling those with disabilities in that story as “abnormal” or “unhealthy.”

By now, you may already know certain words are so misused they are taboo, like: retarded, slow, special, challenged, crippled, handicapped, mute, infirm, invalid, disturbed, crazy, midget. These are obvious writing offenses.

Here are two common, but not so obvious words that fly against people-first style: victim or sufferer (as in cancer victim). People fighting cancer may point you to many other word choices, but not many wish to be perceived as victims or nor do they self-identify identify as sufferers.

The people-first philosophy describes people as individuals not by their disability. Just as you wouldn’t describe someone who wears classes as a vision-sufferer, you don’t need to go overboard to play the sympathy card when describing someone with a disability.

Actually, it shouldn’t take a stylebook guide to do this right. 

Just remember that when you are about to write something involving someone with a disability think of the person first, and the disability second. 

Sometimes it’s just that simple.

Tim O’Brien is owner of Pittsburgh-based O’Brien Communications, a corporate communications consultancy.  He has over 30 years’ experience in communications and started his career as a journalist.

Photo: Associated Press logo via Shutterstock

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