Tips for Writing About Disability


Writers understand how powerful language is, with its ability to shape how readers understand and view the world. However, while it can be used to liberate, it may also be used to oppress. It’s always crucial for a writer to examine their intention and bias behind word choices. 

Many are unaware of how certain terminologies can alienate and reinforce a negative understanding of marginalized groups, so to go in-depth about the correct way to write about disability, we spoke with Neera R. Jain, PhD, MS, CRC, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Auckland Faculty of Education and Social Work.

1
Respect linguistic preferences in addressing disability

There are two different ways to address disability when writing, namely, person-first and identity-first languages. “The choice of language people use is often reflective of a person’s relationship to and understanding of disability,” says Jain.

People may use person-first language to center their personhood and convey that their disability is only one aspect of their identity.

Example: I am a person with autism.

On the other hand, people may use identity-first language to show that disability is an integral part of their identity, asserting that it is an essential identifier.

Example: I am an autistic person.

Avoid assuming someone else’s linguistic preference by making sure you ask them and confirm it before writing. It’s important to use the language that they choose to identify with and let them dictate how others should refer to them.

>>Read More: How to Be an Ally

2
Be careful how you frame disability

Using phrases like “victim of,” “afflicted by,” “stricken with,” or “wheelchair-bound” can connote pity and frame disability as an unfortunate or dangerous thing. 

Grammarly’s delivery suggestions can help you avoid these phrases and replace them with language that doesn’t carry negative connotations.

Examples: Her sister, who was recently stricken with cancer  who recently developed cancer, has to stay in the hospital.

Jack isn’t confined to a wheelchair  doesn’t use a wheelchair / isn’t a wheelchair user.

“A more neutral term such as “experiences,” “lives with,” or “has,” leaves space for a person to share their own experience without an immediate and imposed negative bias. This honors a person’s agency to frame and understand their own experience,” says Jain.

3
Don’t use these offensive words

Avoid casually using descriptive terms that have been used to dismiss and oppress disabled people, such as “crazy,” “dumb,” or “insane.” These words add to the stigma around disability.

“Using them as terms of insult, signifiers of something that is bad, out of control, or dangerous, continues to link these traits with experiences of disability and frame it as something that should be feared and is less than,” says Jain. 

Here are other words that should be avoided:

  • lame
  • psycho
  • lunatic
  • manic
  • idiot
  • moron
  • spaz

There are plenty of words that can convey the intended meaning without carrying such connotations, including “wild,” “ignorant,” “boring,” or “intense.”

Examples:  Daniel was so mad that he began acting crazy irrationally.

I don’t agree with the plan because their idea is so stupid nonsensical.

4
Refrain from using euphemisms

Terminologies that treat disability as a bad word, like “handi-capable,” “differently-abled,” or “special needs,” further establish the need to use alternative language. Labeling their needs as something that is special, extra, and unexpected often elevates their exclusion.

Example: Carter was seriously hearing-impaired deaf/hard of hearing.

“By just saying ‘disability’ and not ascribing it a negative connotation, we can reshape public understanding of what disability really is and how people experience it,” says Jain.

>>Read More: What Is Tone?

5
Watch how you write about people without disabilities

Labeling nondisabled people as “healthy,” “able-bodied,” or “normal” automatically frames disability as the opposite of these traits. “Many people with disabilities are generally healthy, able, and normal. Instead, you can say ‘nondisabled,’” says Jain.

Grammarly’s delivery suggestions will help you rephrase this ableist terminology.

Example: Able-bodied Nondisabled people can be allies of the disability community.

6
Avoid mentioning disability if it’s not essential to the story

A person’s disability doesn’t automatically make a story newsworthy. It may only reinforce the message that disabled people aren’t expected to be skilled in anything.

Examples: Samantha Anderson, a wheelchair user, spoke about the inaccessibility of most buildings and public spaces.

Richard Davis, a blind entrepreneur an entrepreneur, recently created a new startup tech company.

“If the only hook to your story is that it is exceptional for a disabled person to do something other people do, you should ask yourself why this might be,” says Jain.

7
Center their voice

If you’re writing about disabled people, it’s crucial to let them provide their commentary. Actively seek out sources and relevant experts that can truthfully speak about disability. “Honor their voice and consider how societal structures have created negative experiences of disability,” says Jain. Ask about their experiences and always include their perspective in the story. 

Take the time to educate yourself, do your research, and listen to diverse people like activists Alice Wong and Lydia X. Z. Brown. “There are also heaps of resources online, informed by disabled people, that enumerate ways to talk about disability that are respectful,” says Jain. 



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