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.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

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

  1. At this point, the only winning move is to just say “I’m not going to go out of my way to insult people” and just move on, because there is no possible way to please everyone.

  2. I think a better takeaway is, “Don’t assume – ASK.” Because the person/group you’re writing about has a name, and opinions, and is better able to make decisions than an outsider.

    It’s really not that hard.

    And yes, it may be different for different individuals or groups – big surprise. The world has room for more than one way to do things.

    It has a plus: if you have carefully determined what your subject want(s), you have a bulwark against those who would disagree with what you write about ‘the disabled.’

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