Learn the Correct Terminology With the Disability Style Guide

I have used the term “special needs” frequently and freely throughout my life. I have a brother with autism, and this expression is quite versatile and, in my opinion, harmless.

But everything is changing.

Back in April, I wrote an article for Offspring called “ How to Raise a Normal Child if You Also Have a Disabled ”. Yes, it’s not easy, but as I learned during the editing process, I should not use the phrase “child with special needs”.

Why? Because, as the National Center for Disability and Journalism Language Style Guide points out:

The term “special needs” was popularized in the United States in the early 20th century during a push to educate people with special needs to serve people with all types of disabilities. The word “special” to refer to people with disabilities is now widely considered offensive, as it euphemistically stigmatizes that which is different. The term “special education” continues to be widely used for public school programs, although some government agencies use titles such as “exceptional student services”.

Although I am a journalist and have a disabled brother, I had no idea about the existence of this style guide. In other words, don’t be discouraged if you don’t know all of the appropriate wording and terminology. It’s not about achieving excellence, but about trying and being open to learning how to become better.

Instead of “special needs”, the style guide recommends “specifying the specific disability or disability in question. The term “functional needs” is preferred when needed. For example, “meeting the functional needs of people with disabilities” can be used when referring to an institution or program. “

The style guide recognizes from the start that things change quickly, making it difficult for journalists – and people who want to remember that they don’t accidentally hurt you – it’s hard to keep up.

Some specifics

In general, the guide recommends using the first language as a human. This means that you got to know the person before the disability, that is, “disabled” instead of “disabled”.

The manual is 41 pages long, so it won’t be an exhaustive view, but here are a few more tips to keep in mind:

  • “Dwarfism” is a condition for anyone shorter than 4 feet 10 inches. Once widely used in pop culture and in general speech, the word “dwarf” is considered derogatory. America ‘s Little People suggests the terms “short,” “little man,” or “someone with dwarfism.” However, when used for non-medical purposes, the word “dwarf” is often considered offensive.
  • Avoid using “disabled”. Many find this condescending and offensive. Stick to “disabled person” instead.
  • If someone uses a wheelchair, do not say that they are “confined to a wheelchair” or “confined to a wheelchair,” which “describe the person only in relation to equipment.” Instead, just use “wheelchair user”.
  • The World Federation of the Deaf adopted the official terms “deaf” and “hard of hearing” in 1991. Some deaf people who identify with the deaf community prefer the “deaf” to the “hard of hearing”. In the meantime, other people who do not have a cultural connection with the deaf community may prefer the “hard of hearing”. The style guide for people with disabilities also suggests using capital D when referring to the deaf community.
  • Use the word “legally blind” only when someone has almost completely lost their sight, and “blind” in other cases. Other terms such as “vision impaired”, “visually impaired” and “visually impaired” can also be used – it is best to ask people what they prefer.

General moment

You may notice a trend here: if you don’t know, just ask. This can be difficult – we don’t like to appear naive and we don’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable (including ourselves). However, it is worth feeling the discomfort so that the other feels appreciated and heard.

If you cannot ask the person directly, ask your guardian. My brother, for example, can’t tell you how much he likes being called – he’s non-verbal – but my family doesn’t mind if you call him “autistic,” and management recognizes this discussion: some people object to using “autistic.” as an adjective and prefer someone with autism.

It is not an exact science, but simple awareness can go a long way in preventing resentment and helping a person with a disability.

This is by no means the only such guide. Published by the Center for the Integration and Excellence of Journalism at San Francisco State University , the Diversity Style Guide is another tool for journalists that can help you use sensitivity to navigate a complex world.


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