“But what do we CAAAALL them?”: The language of shackling
[This has been cross-posted at Hoyden About Town.]
I don’t know who David Southwell is when he’s at home, but he’s showing his arse big-time over at his “Sub in the Pub” blog at news.com.au, a large Australia news organisation that is part of News Limited (Rupert Murdoch).
Following up on the story about the man abandoned to cool his heels on Mount Snowdon, Southwell agonises about the “Language of disability“. He mentions that someone in comments requested that journalists stop using the term “wheelchair bound” – a simple and common request any experienced writer should be well aware of. (Read more at Accessibility NZ if you’re unaware of this issue.)
But Southwell seems to decide that this is all a bit scary and difficult to understand, and drops this:
While avoiding pejorative terms is certainly desirable, I also think euphemisms such as “differently-abled” aren’t that helpful and open the whole subject to ridicule.
However if we (I mean the cliche-recyclers) take on board Paul’s point, a better term would be “wheelchair-restricted”?
He’s completely missed the point. He’s very, very stuck in this idea that only terms referring to restriction and binding could possibly be appropriate when referring to a person with a disability. His go-to idea is one of passivity, of shackling. And when he’s told that one term is problematic, he just – looks for a synonym with the same problem, instead of addressing the problem itself.
In comments, I reply simply:
You don’t need to use terms relating to binding or restriction at all. “Person who uses a wheelchair”. “Wheelchair user” for short.
And I figured that would be the end of it. A wheelchair is a tool. A PWD with certain mobility deficits may use one to get around. The term is non-pejorative and descriptive. What’s to argue?
But no, apparently it’s not that simple in the mind of someone whose mind relentlessly associates “disability” with negative ideas. He comes back:
I might go with this, although I think it suggests there is a choice involved and it almost sounds recreational.
Unfortunately in journalese, “user” normally follows after “drug”.
“Wheelchair user” no more connotes a recreational choice than “hammer user” or “computer user” does. You need to bang in a nail, you don’t happen to have a large iron hand, so you use a hammer to achieve your goal. You want to send an email, you don’t happen to have a computer chip and meatwires installed, so you use a computer to achieve your goal. You need to get around, you don’t happen to have legs that hold you up and propel you (or you have other issues like orthostatic hypotension, etc), so you use a wheelchair to achieve your goal. Why is this so difficult for some people to grok?
And why on earth, seeing the term “wheelchair user”, does someone feel the need to leap to the idea of drug abuse?
David, your own news organisation uses “user” far more often to talk about people who use software, computers, and gadgets than to talk about drug users. There are also quite a few hits on “wheelchair user” on a news.com.au search, and no one seems to have panicked yet about your particular, and frankly rather bizarre, concern.
You don’t need to hair-tear publicly about this. Just look up a style guide. There are plenty; your own org probably has one. Here’s one option dealing specifically with disability [RTF download].
Have you had this conversation recently? Did your interlocutor(s) fail to understand the difference between tool use and restriction, hindrance, and hobbling? What’s your journalistic bugbear when it comes to reporting about people with disabilities?