Eradicating Ableist Language Yields More-Accurate and More-Humane Journalism

Illustration of a man standing next to a hole in the ground that's in the shape of a speech bubble; the hole is filled with red spiky barbs, and the man appears uncertain.


As disability historian Aparna Nair and I discussed how regularly disability is portrayed as a pitiful tragedy or a personal failure, exasperation washed over us.

“It is maddening,” I said.

“It’s entirely maddening,” she replied.

Then my mind lurched, tripping over the word “maddening.” Its roots trace back to the Old English for “out of one’s mind,” the Proto-Germanic for “changed for the worse,” the Old Saxon for “foolish,” the Gothic for “crippled, wounded.” Seven weeks of reporting this story had finely sharpened my awareness of ableism—and yet the word left my mouth without the slightest friction. Nair and I agreed: My slip-up exemplified the insidiousness of ableist language.

Ableism evaluates the worth of bodies and minds based on socially constructed criteria of normalcy, performance, and intelligence. Those deemed “deviant, abnormal, defective, subhuman, less than,” as disability activist Lydia X. Z. Brown describes, are erased, marginalized, or abandoned—often with the linguistic assistance of slurs or more subtle pejoratives. Ableism inverts the simple fact that disability is normal, an intrinsic and ubiquitous feature of the human experience.

A “disability,” as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act, is “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” The term includes chronic and terminal illnesses; communication and neurological conditions; and developmental, hearing, intellectual, learning, psychiatric, physical, sensory, and vision disabilities. Disability can be visible or invisible, temporary or permanent, life-long or acquired. Altogether, disabled people form the nation’s largest minority group, one we’re all likely to belong to at some point in our lives. “No other social identity category is so porous and unstable,” writes bioethicist and disability-justice scholar Rosemarie Garland-Thomson in the essay collection About Us.

Journalists have helped propagate ableism by using language that casts disability—directly and indirectly—as abnormal and socially unacceptable. Some portrayals of disabled people are undeniably negative, painting them as incapable or criminal or miserable. Others “elevate” disabled people by characterizing them as saint-like, magical, or inspirational. In either case, disabled bodies and minds are set apart.

In reality, says Emily Ladau, author of Demystifying Disability: What to Know, What to Say, and How to Be an Ally, disability is “not a bad thing. It’s just a natural part of the human experience.” Like every human’s existence, the disabled experience encompasses suffering and pleasure, joy and sorrow, content and discontent; it varies wildly from person to person, from day to day; it is vast and contradictory, complex and ordinary. Words that reduce disability to a single quality commit harm by failing to capture the texture, fluidity, and three-dimensionality that any person—disabled or not—contains.

For the flattened, unnuanced, and negative societal view of disability to change, journalists must accept their role in narrating disability, says Aminata Sanou, a journalist with Burkina 24 in Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso and a trainer in gender and inclusion. “We are society’s mirror.” If journalists don’t shift their portrayals of disability, the general public’s view of people living with disabilities won’t budge either, she says. “If we decide to remain in a habitual state, it’s clear nothing will change.” Ableism is a chain, Sanou says, and “we shouldn’t be ashamed to break it.”


Start, but Don’t Stop, with Glossaries and Style Guides

Journalists can begin by familiarizing themselves with freely available glossaries and style guides for covering disability. These valuable resources offer clear guidance on outdated and offensive ableist terms such as “crippled,” “lame,” or “spazz.”

But you shouldn’t plan to memorize some “no-no” words and call it a day. All language is fluid and evolving; today’s standards are not tomorrow’s. And as my “maddening” mistake exemplifies, ableist language is so deeply woven into our speech that perpetual vigilance is essential. “It’s something we all have to actively keep in mind,” says Rosemary McDonnell-Horita, an independent disability consultant in California who has a mobility disability and uses a wheelchair. “You’re not just going to wake up tomorrow and say, ‘I’m stripping all ableist language from my vocabulary.’”

So journalists must ground these efforts in a genuine understanding of ableism. Ableism maintains its power through the continuous dehumanization of disabled people, and language is a key tool for accomplishing this. The need to avoid ableist language is thus not about avoiding hurt feelings. Instead, it’s about confronting stakes that are grave, violent, oppressive, and ongoing: forced institutionalization and incarceration; social isolation; unmet basic needs; and barriers to entering schools, workplaces, and public spaces.

When teaching disability history, Nair says, many of her students are shocked to discover these horrors have survived into the present. “There’s a tendency to want to believe that the violence is over … and we are not capable of that anymore,” she says. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

For example, one in four disabled adults in the U.S. lives under the poverty line, compared to fewer than one in ten nondisabled Americans. In 2022, only one in five people with disabilities in the U.S. was employed, compared to two-thirds of nondisabled people. At the same time, it’s still legal to pay disabled people sub-minimum wage. Disabled people are almost four times as likely to be the victims of violent crime; disabled children are also nearly four times as likely to experience physical, sexual, or other violence. Around the world, states fail to deliver on promises to support or protect disabled people.

Especially pertinent to journalists, many demeaning disability metaphors doubly commit the writing sins of being inaccurate and clichéd.

The historic and continued neglect and abuse of disabled people remain encapsulated in many commonly used words. When you look into their histories, says s.e. smith, an independent journalist who helped launch the resource Disabled Writers, “sometimes you discover really ugly things.”

Early-20th-century eugenicists used terms like “imbecile,” “moron,” “idiot,” and other terms to connote degeneracy, defectiveness, and unfitness. Their dehumanizing effect paved the way for involuntary sterilization and segregation into horrifically abusive and neglectful institutions. That violence persists today: During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, intellectually disabled people were a lower priority for lifesaving treatments in some states.

The term “midget,” a slur against people with dwarfism, comes from “midge,” and was co-opted by a carnival and circus industry that profited from exhibiting people with physical disabilities like zoo animals. “You are calling a human a fly,” says Cara Reedy, a journalist, director of the Disabled Journalists Association, and a dwarf.  “That’s violent.”

Many people casually lob terms referring to mental health conditions as throwaway insults—”crazy,” “insane,” “bipolar,” “OCD,” “schizophrenic,” “psychotic,” “catatonic,” “demented,” “loony,” “mad,” “nuts,” “deranged,” “bonkers”—even though such accusations once justified locking someone up in an asylum indefinitely, and even now, having a mental health diagnosis can lead to poorer access to health care, employment discrimination, and loss of legal autonomy.

“Lame”—a term whose meaning as “maimed” or “weak” dates back between 1,500 and 400 years across several archaic languages—came to mean “uncool” in the twentieth century. But in antiquity, children with physical disabilities were socially scorned, mutilated to boost their value as beggars, and even murdered by parents who abandoned them to die in the woods with feet bound. “Let there be a law that no deformed child shall live,” wrote Aristotle. Today, the perception that people who need physical-access accommodations have lesser value undermine inclinations to build ramps or elevators.

Despite these deep-seated cruelties, ableist terms remain, paradoxically, both colloquial and (sometimes) hard-to-recognize. “It doesn’t even come up on people’s radar,” McDonnell-Horita says, even though it’s baked into our everyday vernacular. But regardless of whether they register as such, Nair says, “these labels are inextricable from those histories.”


Beware Figurative Language

“Disabled” is not a slur—it’s a simple description of reality. But some people struggle to say the word out loud during sensitivity trainings, McDonnell-Horita says. “You can hear the hesitation in their voice.” She and others credit that discomfort to the proliferation of euphemistic language—“differently abled,” “diffability,” “specially abled,” “handicapable,” and “special-needs.” “Really what you need to say and what you mean to say is ‘disability,’” McDonnell-Horita says.

Other times, we use figurative language to more subtly tie disability to notions of dysfunction, malice, or deviance. That which is “crippled” or “paralyzed” is damaged. A message “falls on deaf ears” when ignored. A politician with no power is a “lame duck.” Someone “turns a blind eye” through intentional ignorance. “Leaning on a crutch” means excessively relying on assistance. “We so often use disability in negative contexts without even realizing it,” says Ladau, who has genetic disability called Larsen syndrome that affects her joints and muscles.

Given the disabled community’s diversity, it makes all the sense in the world that there is no universally agreed upon way to talk about disability.

Especially pertinent to journalists, many demeaning disability metaphors doubly commit the writing sins of being inaccurate and clichéd. “I think of metaphors like that as lazy,” says Amanda Morris, a disability reporter for The Washington Post. A person can be ambushed regardless of whether they have a “blind side” or visual disability. A speech did not literally “fall on deaf ears” unless the audience was a group of people who are exclusively deaf and/or hard of hearing. Terms like “special needs” or “differently abled” deny the fact that everyone—everyone—has unique needs and abilities. A person is not literally “bound by” or “confined to” a wheelchair. “My wheelchair is my freedom,” McDonnell-Horita says.

Medicalized language—“disorder,” “impairment,” “deformity,” “abnormality,” “defect”—frames disability as a pathology to be cured. (“Condition” is usually, but not always, a more neutral word.) Characterizing someone as “suffering from,” or being “stricken by,” or “afflicted with” their disability imposes an emotional assumption about life quality that may not reflect an individual’s lived reality.

Nondisabled people may struggle to notice abstract ableist language and take it seriously. “A lot of people feel like, ‘It’s not that deep,’” says Wendy Lu, a senior staff editor at The New York Times who is multiply disabled. “But when you are disabled and you constantly hear these idioms every day it really makes it seem like we’re just not there.”

Disabled people are forced to navigate a world that often considers them subhuman. Brushing that reality off or bemoaning efforts to address it as hyper-sensitive word policing is itself ableist. “It stings to see your existence used as a shorthand for bad,” says smith, who challenges fellow journalists to ask themselves: “Why do you feel like, when you’re describing something that is bad or negative or unwanted, that disability has to be your go-to?”


Be Ready to Face the Gray

Given the disabled community’s diversity, it makes all the sense in the world that there is no universally agreed upon way to talk about disability. “We’re not very dictatorial in our guide,” says Kristin Gilger, executive director of the National Center on Disability and Journalism (NCDJ), which publishes a style guide for journalists. “There are some things you say, ‘Just don’t do this.’ But in many cases, it depends.” For example, as the guide notes, many people consider that using the term “severe” to describe a condition “implies judgment” and advocate for using the word “significant” instead. But not everyone agrees with that distinction. Many people with myalgic encephalomyelitis, for instance, embrace the terms “severe” and “very severe”—only lamenting that they’re not strong enough to evoke the most horrific and extreme versions of an illness that has historically been dismissed. That variability in opinion underscores why journalists writing on disability and chronic illness should, as the NCDJ guide suggests, “proceed with caution.” The NCDJ resource and others like it, Gilger says, should be viewed not as simplistic how-to guides, but as tools to empower journalists to thoughtfully handle reporting about disability on their own.

Ambiguity also rules the sometimes-tricky terrain of what terminology to use to refer to disabled people. Some people (and particularly members of the autistic and Deaf communities) prefer identity-first language—“disabled person,” “autistic person,” and so on—which embraces disability as an inseparable part of one’s personhood, just like one’s race, class, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and so on. Others prefer person-first language: “person with a disability.” In the past, the NCDJ (and other research and advocacy organizations) encouraged journalists to default to person-first language; after pushback, they revoked that blanket advice. “Instead, we hope you will double down to find out how people would like to be described,” the guide now reads. “We encourage you to confirm on a case-by-case basis.”

When deciding whether to refer to someone as being ADHD or as having ADHD, as being deaf or Deaf or hard of hearing, as being autistic or being an autistic person or having autism, the resounding advice is to simply ask a person what they prefer and honor the answer. When not referring to a specific person—or when there is no clear consensus on what a particular disability community prefers—the advice is not as cut-and-dry. You might draw from communications or guidance from relevant, disability-led organizations or intermix person-first and identity-first language throughout a piece; you should still be careful not to lean on whatever language is used by “third parties” like parents or doctors.

Such questions are often complicated by other language considerations, too. For example, some members of certain illness communities note that the seemingly neutral term “patient” can reduce a person to an identity of illness and erase other aspects of their existence, and for that reason they prefer to avoid the term. So, for example, some might prefer “person living with HIV and AIDS” to “AIDS patient.” (Again, it’s best practice to ask an individual their preference.)

Journalists have an obligation not to just to watch our language, but to actively counter ableism in ourselves and our readers.

Journalists might enter other gray areas when they encounter seemingly unavoidable ableist language—science’s “double-blind” studies or the quotidian “handicapped parking.” These examples may seem to leave no room for options, but there are several possibilities for sensitively handling such language. We can choose to use these terms, put them in quotation marks, and explain why they’re controversial. We can swap them out for more neutral language like “anonymous study” or “accessible parking,” and explain any potentially unfamiliar terms to readers.

One potential exception, Lu says, is if a prominent source uses an ableist term or phrase in a critical news moment, in which case “you might have to include it.” Alternatively, she says, you might paraphrase or choose a different quote. Consider a hypothetical quote in which a researcher describes an aspect of their work others might find surprising: “It’s crazy, but it happens all the time.” The writer could cut “it’s crazy” from the direct quotation; they could also press the scientist some more in order to get a quote that didn’t rely on ableist language to make its point.

In some cases, ableist language is enshrined in law or governance. Several French-speaking countries offer health insurance or other forms of state support for “invalids” or “the handicapped.” Similar to references to U.S. government disability “benefits,” public officials in Burkina Faso refer to disability “privileges” or “advantages,” Sanou told me, rather than framing certain government programs as protecting their civil rights and providing adequate support. Another example is the many U.S. agencies that still use the phrase “special education” to describe support for disabled students. And in 2016, despite pushback from disability advocates, several Indian government agencies were renamed, branding people with disabilities as “divyang,” a term that means “possessed with divinity” and reinforces the stereotype of disabled people as magical or saint-like. That same year, in Japan, authorities refused to identify the victims of a terrorist who stabbed 19 residents of a disability care facility to death and injured 26 more; they defended the choice as a means of preventing the deceased’s families from being discriminated against for being related to a disabled person. The decision ultimately made it impossible for journalists to cover each individual loss of life with human breadth and depth.

Disability also has distinctive cultural nuances that journalists must navigate thoughtfully. A majority of disabled people—80 percent—live in the Global South. Western standards when it comes to ableist language cannot simply be imposed, Nair says. “That’s not productive if you really want to understand and communicate what it means to be living with a disability in the Global South.” Instead, it’s critical to respect and reflect the unique societal forces that shape an individual’s experience of disability and keep in mind that language itself functions differently across contexts.

For example, when doing ethnographies of women with epilepsy in Indian hospitals, she avoids the word “epileptic”—even though that’s how Nair, who has epilepsy, self-describes. Instead, she refers to them as they do: “sick.” Similarly, Nair refers to people as having “Hansen’s disease,” not “leprosy,” which offers a liberating distance from historic stigma in the more than 120 countries where the bacterial infection still persists. “I know the weighty past of that particular label,” she says.

Discrimination against people with disabilities is sometimes rooted in theology, Sanou explains. In Burkina Faso, for example, many deeply religious people view disability as a divine punishment for their personal moral failures or those of their ancestors. “Public opinion doesn’t necessarily have a compassionate view toward people with disabilities,” she says. And so, in her reporting, she intentionally opts for the person-first “people living with disabilities” over the identity-first “disabled people.” In Burkina Faso, she says, “it’s less heavy to carry, I think.”


From Anti-ableist Language to Anti-ableism

Journalists have an obligation not to just to watch our language, but to actively counter ableism in ourselves and our readers. “We live in an ableist society and journalists come from society,” Reedy says. “Whether we’re in a newsroom or not, we’re all ableist.”

Sanou, for example, focuses on individual disabled people in her stories, such as a man who had lived for 10 years as HIV-positive without telling anyone in his family. “The more we personalize, the more we humanize, the more we solicit compassion,” she says, “the more we enter reality.”

Addressing language is only a starting place for addressing ableism as a whole.

Journalists who want to explore more truthful and evocative ways of depicting disability can look to essay and poetry collections like Beauty Is a Verb, About Us, Disability Visibility, and Body Language, which offer a portal into the endlessly imaginative ways that disabled writers describe themselves in and on their own terms.

We can also reconsider professional norms, from interviewing sources to packaging stories. During a 2019 investigation into schools exiling disabled students to padded, cell-like “quiet rooms,” for example, ProPublica Illinois journalists included children’s drawings showing how it felt to be locked up for hours on end. In 2020, in a feature on pandemic isolation and dementia, The Washington Post included brief text conversations with a woman about her personal struggle: “I not talking with the whole sentence anymore,” she texted. “Not got balance. Painful cramping.” The New York Times made it possible to print its special coverage of the ADA’s 30th anniversary in Braille. For The Washington Post, Morris, who is hard of hearing and a CODA (child of deaf adults), regularly appeals to her audiences through multiple senses with visual diagrams and audio clips.

Addressing language is only a starting place for addressing ableism as a whole. “How many racists don’t say the n-word anymore?” Reedy asks. “You can stop saying the r-word, but you can still [fail to] talk to an intellectually disabled person when the story is about intellectually disabled people,” she says. “You have devalued that person by not speaking to them.” Reedy adds that “while the two are not the same, the function is the same, in that you can continue to be a racist without saying the n-word. You can also change your language around disability and still be an ableist.” Eric Michael Garcia, a senior Washington correspondent for The Independent and author of We’re Not Broken: Changing the Autism Conversation, agrees. “You could remove every ‘wheelchair bound,’ every ‘falls on deaf ears,’ and still wind up having very flat, very dry writing about disability,” he says. “What you should be aspiring to is the wholeness of the disability experience.”


Marion Renault Sio Hornbuckle

Marion Renault is a freelance science and health writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Slate, STAT, The New Yorker, Wired, and more. They’re on Twitter at @MarionRenault.

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