This section of the style guide is meant to help writers respectfully and accurately cover subjects related to aging and disability. These topics won’t always be relevant in an article, but when they are, it’s important to write about them with care.
First, learn more about terms used to discuss aging and disability in general:
Merriam-Webster defines able-bodied as “having a strong sound body.” In the Disability Language Style Guide, the National Center on Disability and Journalism recommends against using able-bodied to refer to individuals without disabilities, saying: “The term ‘non-disabled’ or the phrase ‘does not have a disability’ or ‘is not living with a disability’ are more neutral choices.”
In its Media Takes: On Aging, the International Longevity Center - USA makes recommendations related to writing about aging:
- Rather than using the now-loaded terms seniors and the elderly, use older adults or retirees, or, even better, specify the age of the person or people you’re writing about.
- Avoiding describing older adults with patronizing adjectives such as feisty, spry, sweet, little, feeble, eccentric, senile, grandmotherly, etc. Do not describe someone as “80 years young.”
- Refer to individuals living in nursing homes as residents, as opposed to patients.
The American Psychological Association advises: "Do not use language that implies that all older adults are experiencing perceptual or cognitive decline or have health problems, or that all older adults are frail." If you are writing about an individual with dementia, APA recommends against using the word 'senile,' which it describes as "an outdated term with no agreed-upon meaning." APA says to "specify the type of dementia when known (e.g., dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease)."
The AP Stylebook defines disabled as “[a] general term used for a physical, mental, developmental or intellectual disability.” AP says both person-first (“person with a disability”) and identity-first (“disabled person”) language are acceptable. Ask your source what they prefer.
The Americans with Disabilities Act National Network’s Guidelines for Writing about People with Disabilities spells out some common categories used to describe types of disability: “visible/invisible; physical; mobility; sensory; cognitive; mental illness/psychiatric disability; and acquired/congenital.”
The guide points out: “Although some people with disabilities also have chronic illnesses, and some people have disabilities due to chronic illness, people with disabilities CAN be healthy. A disability is not a disease. Do not imply disease if a person's disability resulted from anatomical or physiological difference (for example, a person with spina bifida). Do not refer to people with disabilities as patients unless their relationship with their doctor is under discussion or they are referenced in the context of a clinical setting.”
NCDJ points out that “[d]isability and people who have disabilities are not monolithic. Avoid referring to ‘the disabled.’”
AP recommends writers stay away from descriptions of disabled people “that connote pity, such as afflicted with, battling or suffers from” and says to “[a]void clichés such as inspiring and brave.”
In an interview with NPR, Cara Reedy, the director and founder of the Disabled Journalists Association, and Rosemary McDonnell-Horita of LaVant Consulting, a disability-focused communications firm, advise writers to avoid inspirational narratives about people "overcoming" their disabilities. McDonnell-Horita explains in the article, "It's not really necessarily my disability that I've had to overcome. It's the negative attitudes and stereotypes that come with being a disabled person. That is more exhausting." Instead, Reedy and McDonnell-Horita say, articles related to disability should center the voices of disabled people; "recognize that disability is a culture and an identity, not a problem"; and consider the diversity of experiences of disability, as "[d]isability crosses every other community and marginalized identity group."
Avoid using disability as a metaphor. As Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg writes on the website Disability and Representation: "The stories that disability metaphors tell are deeply problematic, deeply destructive, and deeply resonant of the kinds of violence and oppression that disabled people have faced over the course of many centuries. They perpetuate negative and disempowering views of disabled people, and these views wind their ways into all of the things that most people feel are important. If a culture's language is full of pejorative metaphors about a group of people, that culture is not going to see those people as fully entitled to the same housing, employment, medical care, education, access, and inclusion as people in a more favored group."
Writer Lydia X. Z. Brown suggests atlernatives to disability-related metaphors on their blog, Autistic Hoya. For example:
- blind to/deaf to → willfully ignorant, deliberately ignoring
- crazy/schizophrenic → wild, confusing, unpredictable
- dumb/idiotic/stupid → ignorant, impulsive, foolish, uninformed
- lame → boring, uninteresting, monotonous, uncool
- OCD → fastidious, meticulous, hyper-focused
These metaphors show up in writing about science and computing, in terms such as "double-blind review." (Brown suggests the alternative "doubly anonymous review.") The Google developer documentation style guide suggests similar alternatives, replacing the phrase "cripples the service," with "slows down the service," and the term "sanity-check" with "check for completeness and clarity."
In its Guidelines: How to Write about People with Disabilities, the University of Kansas Research & Training Center on Independent Living points out: “People with disabilities are the largest minority group in America, and the only group that any person can join at any time—through disease, traumatic event, or other reason. Like other minority groups, there is much diversity within the disability community, and people with disabilities don’t want to be stereotyped when their stories are told.”
According to the University of Kansas guidelines: “If you adopt respect for the individual as your guiding principle, you can have an open conversation that acknowledges both the disability and the unique identity and shared humanity of all. How do you describe yourself? or How should I describe your disability? are simple ways to begin.”
The AP Stylebook recommends not using these terms as synonyms for disability/disabled.
This is a selection of more specific terms. You can find many additional entries in the guides referenced.
Merriam-Webster defines accessible as “easily used or accessed by people with disabilities : adapted for use by people with [usually physical] disabilities.” The ADA National Network’s guide recommends using this term to “[emphasize] the need for accessibility rather than the presence of a disability.” So, say “accessible parking” rather than “handicapped parking” and “accessible restroom” rather than “disabled stall.”
Merriam-Webster defines addiction as “a compulsive, chronic, physiological or psychological need for a habit-forming substance, behavior, or activity having harmful physical, psychological, or social effects and typically causing well-defined symptoms (such as anxiety, irritability, tremors, or nausea) upon withdrawal or abstinence.”
NCDJ’s guide says to avoid referring to someone as an addict; instead use terms such as “someone with a drug addiction” or someone “recovering from” or “in recovery from” an addiction. Similarly, “[r]efer to someone who harmfully uses alcohol as ‘someone with an alcohol problem’ or ‘someone with alcoholism.’” The University of Kansas guide also suggests wording such as: “people who are substance dependent or person who is alcohol dependent.” See The Carter Center Journalism Resource Guide on Behavioral Health for more tips on writing about addiction.
Merriam-Webster defines ADHD, which stands for attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, as “a developmental disorder that is marked especially by persistent symptoms of inattention (such as distractibility, forgetfulness, or disorganization) or by symptoms of hyperactivity or impulsivity (such as fidgeting, speaking out of turn, or restlessness) or by symptoms of all three and that is not caused by any serious underlying physical or mental disorder.” According to the organization Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, ADHD and ADD “are medically the same disorder, not two separate conditions.” ADHD is the preferred term.
NCDJ says: “Some people with ADHD prefer to say they ‘have’ the condition; others prefer to say they ‘are’ ADHD.” Ask your source what they prefer.
Merriam-Webster defines autism spectrum disorder as “any of a group of developmental disorders (such as autism and Asperger’s syndrome) marked by impairments in the ability to communicate and interact socially and by the presence of repetitive behaviors and restricted interests.”
NCDJ points out that: “Prior to 2013, subtypes of autism such as Asperger’s syndrome, autism disorder and childhood disintegrative disorder were classified as distinct disorders. The fifth edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders consolidates all autism disorders under the larger autism spectrum disorder diagnosis.” NCDJ points out that “[s]ome people with autism prefer being referred to as ‘autistic’ or an ‘autistic person.’ Others object to using autistic as an adjective.” Ask your source what they prefer. (see: neurodiversity)
NCDJ says to use the term blind to describe someone with “complete loss of sight.” Use “legally blind” to describe someone with “almost complete loss of sight.” Another option is “low vision.” NCDJ recommends against using the term “visually impaired.” Ask your source what they prefer.
The AP Stylebook defines caregiver as “a person who takes care of someone requiring close attention, such as a person with a serious illness or age-related concerns.” It says to use caregiver, rather than caretaker, “in situations involving people receiving care. The term caretaker generally refers to a person who takes care of something, such as a house, when the owner isn’t present, or to a person or entity carrying out duties temporarily (a caretaker government).”
Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines cripple as someone who is “lame or otherwise disabled in a way that prevents normal motion of the limbs or body.” The AP Stylebook recommends avoiding the term cripple. But NCDJ points out that “[r]ecently, some disability activists have reclaimed” words like crip and cripple. If a source prefers to use these terms, you can point out in the story that this is how they self-identify.
Merriam-Webster defines deaf as “having total or partial hearing loss.”
According to NCDJ: “’Deaf’ and ‘hard of hearing’ became the official terms recommended by the World Federation of the Deaf in 1991. Many people in the Deaf community prefer the use of the lowercase ‘d’ to refer to audiological status and the use of the capital ‘D’ when referring to the culture and community of Deaf people.” Always ask your source what they prefer; some deaf people do not consider themselves to be a part of the Deaf community.
The AP Stylebook reserves the term “deaf” for “a person with total or major hearing loss.” Otherwise, it recommends using terms like “partial hearing loss” or “partially deaf.” Avoid the term “hearing impaired.”
NCDJ says: “When quoting or paraphrasing a person who has signed their responses, it’s appropriate on first reference to indicate that the responses were signed. It’s acceptable to use the word ‘said’ in subsequent references.”
NCDJ says to avoid the terms mute and dumb, as they “imply that communication is not possible.” Rather, “if someone uses American Sign Language, lip-reads or uses other means to communicate, state that.”
NCDJ recommends against using these terms to describe people with disabilities. “Instead, use medical diagnoses and describe an individual’s abilities and challenges, rather than using less-specific labels.”
Merriam-Webster defines mental illness as “any of a broad range of medical conditions (such as major depression, schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder, or panic disorder) that are marked primarily by sufficient disorganization of personality, mind, or emotions to impair normal psychological functioning and cause marked distress or disability and that are typically associated with a disruption in normal thinking, feeling, mood, behavior, interpersonal interactions, or daily functioning.”
If possible, avoid using this vague term in favor of naming a specific diagnosis. The AP Stylebook says to “[s]pecify the time frame for the diagnosis and ask about treatment.”
Don’t use mental health terms as metaphors. [See disabled] See The Carter Center Journalism Resource Guide on Behavioral Health for tips on writing about mental illness. See the National Eating Disorders Association’s “Sharing Your Story Publicly” for tips on writing about eating disorders.
The blog Neurocosmopolitanism describes neurodiversity as “the diversity of human minds, the infinite variation in neurocognitive functioning within our species.”
The website Exceptional Individuals lists some examples of causes of some of those variations:
- Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD or dyspraxia)
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
- Autistic Spectrum (AS)
- Tourette Syndrome (TS), and others
Exceptional Individuals says “[n]euro-differences are recognized and appreciated as a social category on par with ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, or disability status.”
According to Neurocosmopolitanism, the related term neurotypical “means having a style of neurocognitive functioning that falls within the dominant societal standards of ‘normal.’” The opposite of neurotypical is neurodivergent, which “means having a brain that functions in ways that diverge significantly from the dominant societal standards of ‘normal.’”
An individual can be neurodivergent, but a single person cannot on their own be neurodiverse.
The AP Stylebook says: “Survivor can denote someone who has lived through an injury or disease.”
NCDJ says: “Some use the term ‘survivor’ to affirm their recovery from or conquest of an adverse health condition.” But it recommends using it with care in writing, as it can “imply that those who die simply did not fight hard enough.” NCDJ points out there is a similar discomfort about “characterizing disease or illness as a ‘battle,’ as in ‘to battle cancer.’”
The University of Kansas guide points out: “Survivor is preferable to victim because it recognizes a person’s ability to grow, change and overcome adversity.”
Merriam-Webster defines wheelchair as “a chair mounted on wheels especially for the use of disabled persons.” The AP Stylebook recommends saying a person is a “wheelchair user,” not that they are “confined to a wheelchair” or “wheelchair-bound.”
Know that some people use wheelchairs in their daily lives only some of the time—or to assist them with specific tasks. AP notes: “If a wheelchair is needed, and relevant, say why.”