Words: How to refer to people with a disability

People with a disability are often described in the media using stereotypes. Stereotypes stigmatise groups who are depicted in this shallow manner and affect people’s lives. That’s why it’s important that we change the ways we talk about people with a disability to respect the person, and not make disability a focus of our attention. For community radio producers, we have the Code Of Practice to remind us to be careful about avoiding discrimination in our reporting:

We will not broadcast material that is likely to stereotype, incite, vilify, or perpetuate hatred against, or attempt to demean any person or group, on the basis of ethnicity, nationality, race, language, gender, sexuality, religion, age, physical or mental ability, occupation, cultural belief or political affiliation. (Code Of Practice s3.3)

Given this obligation, community radio producers need to attend to how their depiction of marginalised people might frame them as stereotypes. McRuer (2006) identified three main media frames that misrepresent the real life experiences of people with a disability: disability as tragedy, triumph over disability, and super-crip. Words are also a problem, especially as trends in the English language change so often. One of the great things about protest movements is their capacity to reclaim insulting and negative words for there own purposes.  Just as ‘queer’ has been reclaimed by the LGBTIQ+ communities, ‘crip’ is now common parlance amongst disability rights activists, declaring it is now it’s ‘hip to be crip’ and applying a disability lens to social and political issues as ‘cripping’ like the 2016 #cripthevote did during the US elections (Disability Visibility Project, 2016).

However, there are still lots of words that hurt and misrepresent, and some of them have a long pedigree in the news media.

Some research has examined what people with a disability think about the way they are depicted in the media. Johnson (1994) asked people with a disability what they thought of a range of words common used by news media to describe them. The words included “handicapped”, “disabled”, “wheelchair bound”, “victim”, “crippled”, “differently abled”, “handi-capable”, “physically challenged” and “person with a disability” (p.27). Few liked the term “handicapped” for its perceived reference to begging “cap in hand”, and that some had it imposed upon them by service agencies; but neither did they like “handi-capable”. The former was recognised as a word commonly used at that time in legislation.

“Disabled” was preferred for its lack of connotations of inability to function and that it was being embraced widely by the disability rights movement at that time, the typical way that social movements acquire nomenclature according to Johnson’s analysis (p.28). “Person with a disability” was perceived as putting the person first, although it was perceived as “awkward” to say with one respondent saying “journalists will never use it consistently due to length” (p.29). The claiming of terminology has a “liberating” function for one participant, who felt he was, “reclaiming my personhood from a society that had treated me as “less than” solely on how I walked”; Ten years later the participant was also comfortable with “disabled”…I am proud now to be  “a disabled person” …to have persevered” (p.29). Naming is a complex issue, but first and foremost it needs to be decided and claimed by the people it describes for it to be empowering.

Johnson notes that “physically challenged” gained ascendancy in the early 1990s amongst news writers, but people with a disability did not like the term, calling it “condescending” says Johnson, perpetuating the idea that disabilities are too confronting to deal with directly and need to be described by euphemisms and that the so-called challenges are actually problems that lie in the environment, not the person (p.31). A Google News search in September 2018 returned 67,000 results containing the term “physically challenged” in the title to describe a person with a disability, indicating it is still widely used by journalists.

Johnson notes that the phrase “wheelchair bound” was the subject of media activism by people with a disability in the mid-1980s, through appeals to publishers of style guides, and by directly ridiculing newspapers using it by sending them pictures of people chained to wheelchairs. But it remains persistent in the journalist lexicon, being used as recently as September 22, 2018 in the Sydney Morning Herald (O’Mallon, 2018), with 40 other occurrences globally on that day alone, according to a Google News search by the researcher. “Victim” has also been the target of activism, but remains in use in conjunction with disability in the media.

While media agencies like the Media and Arts Alliance, and the Australian Press Council make standards and codes, those paper tigers obviously aren’t affecting change if after more than 20 years, ‘wheelchair bound’ is still in use in the mainstream media. One  likely reason the Murdoch media still use sensationalist reporting of disabilities is because they sell papers to the curious, and as newspaper sales are in decline, we will see even more sensationalist ‘reporting’.

In 2017 Griffith University in Queensland began an advocacy journalism project Open Doors to improve the representation of people with a disability in the media by allowing journalism students to connect with people with a disability to help them gain a better understanding of the lived experience of having a disability (Valencia-Forrester, 2017). Read about that project at this link: https://projectopendoors.org/stories/

So what words are now ok?

To find out that, you need first to ask people with a disability.  If it’s in the context of an interview, ASK: how should I describe your disability?

Here are some substitutes:

Do say:

  • disability
  • people with disabilities
  • segregated school
  • seizures
  • needs
  • person with a spinal chord injury
  • person with autism
  • person with down syndrome
  • person of short stature
  • wheelchair user
  • has a learning disability
  • has a brain injury
  • blind, low vision
  • deaf, hard of hearing
  • intellectual disability
  • amputee, has limb loss
  • congenital disability
  • burn survivor
  • person living with (insert condition here)
  • post polio-syndrome, has (insert condition here)
  • service animal or dog
  • psychiatric disability
  • accessible parking
  • accessible toilet
  • ASK: how should I describe your disability?

Don’t say:

  • differently abled, challenged
  • the disabled, handicapped
  • special school
  • fits
  • special needs
  • cripple
  • autistic
  • mongoloid, retarded
  • midget, dwarf
  • confined to a wheelchair, wheelchair-bound
  • slow learner
  • brain damaged
  • visually handicapped, blind as a bat
  • deaf-mute, deaf and dumb
  • gimp, lame
  • birth defect
  • burn victim
  • suffers from polio (or any other disease)
  • Parkinson’s sufferer
  • seeing-eye dog
  • crazy, psycho, schizo
  • handicapped parking, disabled restroom
  • Rude to ask: What happened to you? because it’s none of your business


Community Broadcasting Association of Australia. (2008). Community Radio Broadcasting Codes of Practice Retrieved from HERE

Disability Visibility Project. (2016). #CripTheVote: Our voices, our vote. Retrieved from https://disabilityvisibilityproject.com/2016/01/27/cripthevote-our-voices-our-vote/

Johnson, M. (1994). Sticks and stones:  The language of disability. In J. A. Nelson (Ed.), The disabled, the media, and the information age. Westport: Greenwood Press.

McRuer, R. (2006). Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. New York: New York University Press.

Valencia-Forrester, F. (2017). About Project Open Doors. Retrieved from http://projectopendoors.org

List based on https://www.theindependencecenter.org/disability-etiquette-in-news-headlines/


What is a Personal Action Plan?

So you want to change the way your organisation includes people with a disability, indigenous people, women or another disadvantaged group who need a voice?

A good place to start, according to Clements, Spinks and Phillips in the Equal Opportunities Handbook (2009) is by changing what YOU personally do.

Firstly, you need to learn about the group you are trying to help:  the authors note:

  • People who are disabled often face hurtful and offensive reactions from people who have little sensitivity or empathy. Empathy and greater understanding can help you avoid adding to such prejudice.
  • People who are disabled are sometimes made to feel they are intruding into the world of the able-bodied majority. This isolates them from the communities in which they live. It is the built environment (steps, narrow corridors, voice public phones, visual signs, etc) that has the effect of disabling people who have restricted mobility or have a visual or hearing impairment.
  • In the area of employment, people who are disabled face arguments that they are incapable of doing proper jobs, that their contact with the customer would lose sales or that it would cost too much money to alter working arrangements to meet their needs. In the area of education there is little effective provision for students who are deaf or blind and there are only limited arrangements to improve access for students who are wheelchair users.
  • Too often a person ’ s disability is all that able-bodied people focus on – they ignore the real person who is at the same time disabled. Many people wrongly assume that because someone is disabled they must also be unintelligent.
  • There are many ways in which you can assist a person who is deaf, blind or a wheelchair user, but first you should ask the person if they need and want your help – they may not.”

Social change is also deeply personal change, because it requires us to look at how we see the world and why we see it that way.

The next step is to develop yourself a Personal Action Plan by asking yourself the following questions:

  • How will the things I have learnt about disability change the way I think and act towards others who are different to me?
  • What has helped me to learn about myself with regard to:
    • my beliefs;
    • my attitudes;
    • my values;
    • my knowledge of others;
    • my behaviour;
    • my use of language;
    • my responsibilities;
    • the way I see the world?
  • How do I need to change in order to become:
    • fairer;
    • more sensitive;
    • more understanding;
    • less prejudicial;
    • less discriminatory;
    • better able to deal with people according to their needs?
  • If I were to change one thing about the way I act as a result of reading this what would it be?

(after Clements et al. 2009)

Phil Clements, Tony Spinks, Edward Phillips. (2009). Equal Opportunities Handbook How to Recognise Diversity, Encourage Fairness and Promote Anti-discriminatory Practice (5th ed. ed.). London: Kogan Page.

Guest post: Ableism, inclusion and my community radio experience

Ableism is something that affects people with disabilities on a recurring basis. The experience of disability is often complicated by ableist interpretations of the embodied experience of those experiencing disability, at times this prompts those who live with disability to view their own person by a pathologised lens.

Gregor Wolbring raises that ableism is often left unrecognised institutionally or socially in comparison to other more distinguishable ‘ism’s’ such as racism or sexism. For an example of mediated ableist narratives one can look to  the ‘news’ stories presented during prime time television. Television shows such as  A Current Affair habitually feature stories where journalists make efforts to disapprove a person’s entitlement to disability welfare payments on the premise that they fail to meet  visible qualifying markers of what ableist society identifies as a ‘disabled person’.

I myself have struggled with the complexities of experiencing cerebral palsy, scoliosis and arthritis. Navigating my health is at times difficult and has been further complicated by the fact that for most of life I have not fitted into the visible requirements of what someone experiencing disability looks like.

This has prompted self-doubt as to whether I was deserving of space or ‘special consideration’. Or the bigger question ‘how do I identify?’ ‘Am I ‘able’? ”Am I what society perceives as disabled visibly?’ Such doubts and questions  are shared by my lecturers at uni, parking inspectors, Centrelink staff and the broader community, almost always to my personal disadvantage.

For a long period  I was  left silenced and passive, even now  my voice still continues to heal. But hearing diverse voices on the radio (such as 4ZZZ) and listening to news stories that are inclusive of people within our community, provides a cathartic rhythm with the turn of a radio dial that stilled the anxiety of isolation that I was once experiencing. This eventuated to me seeking out a volunteer position at 4ZZZ radio station, the skills and relationships that I have developed at 4ZZZ  has led to growth in my professional, personal and physical life.

About the author: 

Elizabeth Ralph is a volunteer and former Culture Reviews Coordinator at 4ZZZ in Brisbane.