How the AP Stylebook Considers Language on Disability

From Publishers Weekly:

I’m a Canadian writer but, beyond that, I’m a disabled journalist. The style bible in use north of the border is called the Canadian Press Style Guide, or CP Guide for short. The initialism for my disability, cerebral palsy, is also CP. I often joke with colleagues that I was almost certainly born to do this if the naming conventions of the industry are anything to go by. In fact, this tiny connection is one of the only things, in journalism or in the wider publishing industry, that I am sure of. As always, the goalposts move. Sometimes, even in the right direction. This was true for a recent revision of the Associated Press Stylebook.

On April 23, the AP announced what it called a “revision and expansion” of its guidelines for writing about disabled people. The advice highlighted the need to stay away from old tropes relating to disabled people—that we are just sad objects of pity who need to be doted on via the written word; that we are suffering, or bound, or afflicted. Given this update, one might think that the disability community felt triumphant. However, the joys of being 20% (or thereabouts) of the population is that we are not a monolith and neither is how we identify.

The AP was quickly criticized for its advice surrounding person-first vs. identity-first language. The news agency noted that some people prefer identity-first language, like I’ve used thus far in this piece—disabled followed by identifier. I use identity first because disability permeates every part of my lived experience. My brain damage is not going away, and I don’t need the small reminders that I’m a person.

The other option, person first—e.g., “a journalist with CP”—is used in some circles, but is largely deployed outside of the community by people who feel icky about the word disabled. Like they might catch something or, importantly for writers, like we’re not seen as fully fledged human beings in wider society. Imagine that.

After noting that these distinctions exist, the AP decided—in line with the National Center for Disability Journalism’s guidance at the time (I’m unsure if they collaborated on this decision)—to make its stance, “In describing groups of people, or when individual preferences can’t be determined, use person-first language.” To which many disabled Twitter users, to put it mildly, disagreed. Three days later came a Tweet welcoming readers to give the AP feedback. The NCDJ revised its guidelines this month, removing the suggestion that newsrooms use person-first language automatically.

This whole situation reminds me that it is a moral imperative to go beyond the style guide—to take it as our duty to shepherd the stories of those we are writing about, even if they are fictional, with the utmost of care and attention. Guidance like this has been in the CP Guide for as long as I’ve been reading it—about a decade. And yet, as I write this, typing “handicapped” into Google’s news-specific search function nets 255,000 results. “Crippled,” which is often thoughtlessly used in the same way that “turn a blind eye” and “to have a deaf ear” are, turns up over a million results. “Wheelchair-bound” (as opposed to “wheelchair user,” the preferred term)? 96,300. Just because industry publications give advice doesn’t mean writers take it. I have all the respect in the world for the NCDJ, but style guides change at a glacial pace. It’s not that there isn’t a desire to change—the AP’s quick about-face shows that there is; it’s that writers are creatures of habit. It’s not like handicapped just fell out of favor.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

2 thoughts on “How the AP Stylebook Considers Language on Disability”

  1. Treat the disabled person as human; the rest follows.

    If you can manage to understand disability, it is the same as understanding humankind, only with extra levels of difficulty.

    You should only need to be made aware once that using a word which describes a disability to indicate a mental problem is wrong: an argument isn’t ‘lame,’ a critic isn’t ‘blind.’ It’s hard in the beginning – but quickly becomes your default. Think before you speak or write, realize you – and most people – have been doing it the hurtful way for a long time – and stop it.

    I had to learn, too, and I’ve been disabled and chronically ill for 31 years! It is awkward at first, and then it’s automatic.

  2. There are two levels of meaning involved in using words like “lame” and “blind,” to select from Alicia’s examples. One is direct referral to a person in a derogatory way. The other refers to a phenomenon. Being lame in general means difficulty in moving around, whether it be because a limb doesn’t work, or it hurts, or it is deformed, whatever. Any creature can be temporarily or permanently lame, e.g., a lame horse can’t be ridden because it has an injury, is recovering from a wound, or has a condition like navicular. Ditto people. Any creature can be blind–it can’t see, whether because the eyes don’t work, there is no light, it doesn’t have any eyes at all, or there is a covering over the eyes. Ditto people.

    Lame and blind also have non-literal meanings; an argument is lame because it doesn’t stand on its own merits, or somebody can’t see the logic of something because their mental vision is too narrow. IMO, using these words for phenomena does not pass judgment on a person who physically has such impairments.

    Style guides trying to be unhurtful actually bring stronger focus on the problem than most people intend. If I, who have eyes that work but not very well, meet a person who obviously sees worse than me using a white cane or a seeing-eye dog, I conclude they are blind and think no more about it–until somebody tells me I must *label* them as vision impaired, or vision challenged, or whatever the term of the day informs me is correct. Likewise, if I see somebody on crutches, or creaking along with a stout walking cane, or overtly limping, I deduce they are lame and think no more about it–until somebody tells me I must *label* them as walking challenged or whatever.

    It goes on for all impairments. A common example: When I see somebody in a wheelchair, I assume some medical issue has stricken them. To me, they are handicapped, temporarily or permanently. It does not mean I consider them less than human. What matters is if I look them in the eye and acknowledge their presence; if I talk to them as an equal in conversation; if I am willing to accommodate their difficulties when trying to interact person to person.

    I find it more offensive to apply the preferred term “wheelchair user” than “handicapped.” Who would ever choose to *use* a wheelchair if they didn’t have to?

    God help me if I accidentally speak or write the wrong word to refer to a person who has a disability/handicap/impairment/challenge. I can’t turn to my dictionary, or my editorial style guides, to know the right word because it keeps changing, and is politically charged. In the same way that handicapped? disabled? challenged? people hate being mislabeled, I hate being accused of insensitivity or prejudice because I don’t happen know the correct thing to say on a given day, or how to deal with it at all. They don’t teach you that in non-handicapped school.

    I don’t judge a person just because they have a medical misfortune. But in the same way “handicapped” people are judged as a group, so are the people who haven’t had those medical misfortunes. I often wonder: Who is judging whom?

    IMO, Alicia’s opening remark is the best plan: “Treat the disabled person as human; the rest follows.”

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