“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?

My reply:

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?

30 thoughts on ““But what do we CAAAALL them?”: The language of shackling

  1. My journalistic bugbear when it comes to reporting about people with disabilities is the constant implication that people with mental illnesses and the neurologically atypical are somehow less intelligent and especially when they imply that we are less able parents. :o/
    .-= Anji´s last blog ..Blogrollin’ =-.

  2. Just look up a style guide. There are plenty; your own org probably has one.


    News.com.au “writers” are… well, I don’t know why they chose writing as a profession. They certainly don’t do very well at it.

  3. My 63-year-old boss switched to “wheelchair user” after a client called him on the use of “wheelchair bound”. He’s not exactly Mr. Sensitivity or Mr. Modern. (He is not, for example, a computer user.) I think David can handle it.
    .-= Personal Failure´s last blog ..Up Close and Personal =-.

  4. “Differently abled” does not “open us up to ridicule.” You know what opens us up to ridicule? BEING AN OPPRESSED CLASS. We will be ridiculed no matter what we do.

  5. Yes, it’s not exactly a novel or avant-garde usage at all – and is bog standard in every disability-related journalistic style guide I’ve ever come across. I suspect this guy is just a soi-disant iconoclast who loves to whine about “political correctness” making life so haaaard, and refugees taking his tax dollars, and *yawn*.
    .-= lauredhel´s last blog ..Barriers to justice when rapists attack women with disabilities: Australian report =-.

  6. First of all, I’ve never understood why when someone learns that they’ve said something offensive (when they didn’t mean it in an offensive way) gets so upset and defensive about it. It has happened to me in the past, as I’m sure it’s happened to most people, and I simply apologize. Then when they tell me the more appropriate term to use in the future I thank them for informing me of such and say I will try my best to use it. I don’t see the difficulty in that. But it seems like so many people want to then argue about it instead. I just don’t understand it.

    Secondly, “it almost sounds recreational?” What is he talking about? Is he implying if he says wheelchair user that some of his readers might think he is talking about some person that just occassionally likes using wheelchairs for shits and giggles? Like, one day a skateboard, the next a car, then a bicycle, Wednesday he uses a wheelchair…?

  7. I’ve always been specially fond of the “high functioning” label for people with autism spectrum disorders who’ve learned to act neurotypical on occasion. It feels so awesome and doesn’t at all imply that other people with autism spectrum disorders are less or non-functional.

  8. Secondly, “it almost sounds recreational?” What is he talking about?

    Well, god forbid anyone not be reminded at all points that it’s such a tragedy to use a wheelchair. If it sounds even remotely fun or even neutral, then it’s obviously an inaccurate term, right?
    .-= Sweet Machine´s last blog ..This one’s for the masochists =-.

  9. llevinso, so true; it’s really unfortunate that many people go on the defensive when gently informed that they are using offensive language when they probably don’t mean to. It’s quite sad, actually, because often people end up arguing against themselves in the process of defending whatever they said. It’s hard to gracefully say “oh, thank you, I will not use that word/term/phrase in the future and I appreciate you bringing it to my attention.” Even I’m not always good at that.

    The “recreational” thing strikes me as especially funny given the drug use reference, maybe recreational wheelchair use is the gateway to recreational drug use?

  10. “Wheelchair Bound” is my biggest pet peeve. In the normal day-to-day use of a wheelchair, one is unlike to be tied to it. The only times I’ve seen/heard of people being bound to a wheelchair involved sex games or horrific abuse.

    (Also, I’ve said this elsewhere, but the term “differently-abled” bothers me. I know others use it to self-describe, but I really like “person with a disability” or (in the UK) “disabled person”. It’s rather short and to the point. Most (certainly not all – one notable exception is Renee @ Womanist-Musings) of the people that I know who use “differently-abled” don’t actually know anyone with a disability and are reaching for a term they think is non-offensive.)

  11. Another vote for “high-functioning,” and functioning labels in general. I’ve written about how functioning labels suck.

    I’m not a fan of “sufferer” in journalistic parlance, either.

    But the thing about ‘wheelchair-user” “almost sound[ing] recreational” makes me giggle. Because I’ve been reading Mackenzie Phillips’s memoir High on Arrival, and there was a time when she was a kid that there were a few wheelchair users in the house. (Her sister Chynna had a tumor removed from her leg; I think there were others). Anyway, the kids loved to race around the neighborhood in wheelchairs. It sounded like they were having fun to me 🙂
    .-= Tera´s last blog ..Rosemary =-.

  12. Hi, Anna!

    [T]he term “differently-abled” bothers me. I know others use it to self-describe, but I really like “person with a disability” or (in the UK) “disabled person”.

    Yeah, “differently-abled” bothers me, too. I have no problem when people use it to self-identify…just when its used to describe PWD in general or, FSM forbid, me in particular.

    I have a similar problem when currently-abled people call learning disabilities* “learning differences.” For one thing, it makes it sound like everyone without a learning disability learns the same way. Which, y’know, they don’t.

    [Word geekery warning] The “learning differences” argument in particular seems to center on the word “disability” meaning “unable.” Which it totally doesn’t. I got my BA in Classical languages and literatures, and I have never seen the Greek prefix “dis/dys” mean “not.” There are perfectly good Greek prefixes that mean not, like “a” and “ou.” “Dis/dys” connotes something more like “poor” in the “good/fair/poor” sense, or “difficulty with.” There is, for instance, a difference between dyslexia (“difficulty with reading” and alexia (“no reading”), which may happen after a head injury. [End word geekery warning]

    And all these terms feed into some people’s argument that there are differences (which are good) and disabilities (which are bad) and that disability is not difference.

    A teacher in high school once called me “spatially challenged.” I know he was trying to be non-offensive, but…gack!

    *I’m in the US, so “learning disability” is used to describe conditions like dyslexia or dyscalculia.
    .-= Tera´s last blog ..Rosemary =-.

  13. Thank you, Sweet Machine!

    Bonus word geekery!: Sir Thomas More coined the word “utopia” by combining the words “eutopia” (“good place”) and “outopia” (“no place”–because this “good place” does not exist). In medicine, “atopy” or “atopic” are used to describe conditions which seem to come “from no place.” (I’d argue that asthma, eczema and rhinitis actually *do* come from someplace, but oh well).

    All of these words mean very different things from “dystopia,” which is basically a “not-good place.”
    .-= Tera´s last blog ..Rosemary =-.

  14. Tera, word geek to word geek, you precisely nailed all of my problems with “differently abled” and “learning differences.” Thank you!

    In re:”high functioning,” some people on the autism spectrum have told me that they’re uncomfortable with this term, and I can see why, since it seems to imply that there’s a “normal” level of “functionality” which we should all be striving to achieve. I’d be interested to hear more from people who have identified problems with this term, because I have to admit, I’m not wholly comfortable with it.

  15. I have to say, this is a fairly common theme in a lot of intersections. The person using the problematic language in question is too busy trying to continue to apply their flawed, othering or privileged views onto the situation to actually realize that the overall issue are those views, not necessarily the word itself.

    The word is a problem because of shackling aspects and the fact that he can’t see that shows that he’s not really thinking about the root cause. He cares more about the fact that people are upset than why they are. Really makes it rough to fix the problem when people do that.
    .-= recursiveparadox´s last blog ..We Are Not Spared: Trans Women, Media Blitz and Body Image =-.

  16. i found this very interesting – it got me thinking about how i use this kind of language when advocating for individual clients who are trying to prove their disability in a benefits system. in fact i found that so interesting i had to go and write a post about it. 🙂

  17. I’m abled, and I wrote and produced a play a few years ago for an actress who uses a wheelchair. The fact that she was in a wheelchair was not a major plot point–I just wanted the audience to look at a whole person who happens to use a wheelchair, and in doing so have their assumptions challenged about her desires, sexuality, sense of humor, etc.–basically all the things are often ignored when someone looks at a wheelchair user and reduces them to a “sufferer.”

    One of my favorite moments was when one of her coworkers made fun of her small size–you could hear the audience gasp in horror. When she came back with a witty put-down, they laughed, and it was like you could hear something click because they now saw her as stronger and smarter than the guy.

    Anyway, I had written “differently abled” in the character description, and the actress took me aside and said it should be “a person in a wheelchair.” I of course gladly changed the description, but it seems unfortunate that “differently abled” isn’t a good option. I don’t like to use the word “disabled” because the root of “dis” has a negative connotation.

    So, my question is, if “disabled” and “differently abled” are out as generic terms for someone who’s clearly moving through the world in a different way than I am (either with or without the aid of a wheelchair or some other equipment), is there another suitable term? I’m wondering if there just *isn’t* a good umbrella term, and maybe there *shouldn’t* be, because of all the variety of differences on the ability spectrum…?

    The need for such a term doesn’t happen often, as I generally don’t label people, but sometimes, when you’re describing someone, it would be weird not to include this sort of thing. Maybe the answer is to just describe the individual as best I can, e.g., “He takes extra time walking and there needs to be an elevator in the building where we’re meeting.”

  18. So, my question is, if “disabled” and “differently abled” are out as generic terms for someone who’s clearly moving through the world in a different way than I am (either with or without the aid of a wheelchair or some other equipment), is there another suitable term? I’m wondering if there just *isn’t* a good umbrella term, and maybe there *shouldn’t* be, because of all the variety of differences on the ability spectrum…?

    The short answer is your actor told you the words with which to refer to her. Use them. It’s the long answer, too. Your preferences, as a person who has not lived these experiences, really aren’t relevant. This is the same for all identities and all marginalized persons.

    Your last thought is going in the right direction — if a person has specific needs related to physical or mental conditions and you are advocating for them, find out what those needs are and communicate those to the people who need to accommodate them. They don’t need to know what diagnoses that person might have and the person needing accommodation shouldn’t be shamed (though we often are) into providing deeply personal information just to be able to have access to a building.

  19. Yeah, I have problems with the word ‘differently abled’ as well. But then, I have a problem with a lot of things 😉

    To add to the word geekery, the prefix dys, or more accurately, dus, in the ancient Greek language simply changes the meaning of the word it is attached to from a good sense to a bad sense.

    Listen to me, I’m a Greek scholar! j/k

    To get back on topic, I don’t understand this guy. I know that I’ve never met any able-bodied person who would willingly use a wheelchair – who does this man know?! So I don’t see the point behind his argument that saying ‘wheelchair user’ makes it sound recreational.

  20. High-functioning. Also, “Asperger’s is a mild version of autism…”

    I seem to be the only one who hates this, but to me it seems to a) totally downplay what AS can mean because oh, it’s mild – this is not helped by the fact that talk about AS is usually only about the social stuff – while once again using nonverbal autism as the big bogeyman and b) acts as if there is only one dimension of autistic symptoms. This is also one of my problems with high- vs. low-functioning, namely that it assumes that you can classify autistic kids and autistic kid A will be “better” at everything than autistic kid B. Even if you buy into the better/worse thing, autism has multiple dimensions! There’s whether/how well you can speak, or communicate otherwise, there’s whether/how well you can understand people (verbally), there’s body language, there’s sensory issues, there’s whether/how well you pass, there’s meltdowns, there’s gathering-intended-meaning from what people say, there’s executive function stuff… these things may be related but you can’t say that they must always exactly go together. Ex., I’m very good when it comes to communicating what I mean (albeit with small snags, e.g. occasionally saying things without knowing what they mean and dissolving into incoherency when trying to explain things) and pass pretty well, but from what I’ve read I suspect a lot of “low-functioning” people have a much better idea of body language than I do, and my executive function is awful to the point where I’m honestly wondering whether I should get myself tested for ADHD.

    Of course, that isn’t my main beef with high- vs. low-functioning. My main beef is this:

    High- vs. low-functioning are defined via intelligence. However, in practice they usually get used to distinguish between fully verbal and nonverbal autistics/autistics who aren’t that good in conveying what they want to say via speech. Isn’t it just plain LOVELY how we assume that anyone who can’t communicate must be stupid?

    (And isn’t intelligence a really useless criterion, all things told? I mean, it seems to rely on the idea that the only reason one autistic person might show more severe symptoms than the other, might have trouble communicating, etc. is because they’re too stupid to do so. Isn’t it wonderful how nice and empathetic the professionals are?)

    Oh, and on a non-autism note: “XYZ managed to overcome his stutter” = RARGH KAZ SMASH.
    .-= Kaz´s last blog ..weird sensory things =-.

  21. aspie rhetor has one of the best explanations ever for why “functioning” language dehumanizes all autistic people:


    I strong recommend the whole thing, but here’s my favorite quote:

    “So, by this warped HFA/LFA logic, if I’m the hottest PC from Best Buy who happens to be short a few RAM sticks (and also happens to have a processor from, say, the 1990s stone age), then how can I claim that 1883 typewriters don’t want a technological upgrade? I mean, sure, I’ve got a few screws loose myself, and even though I’m slow and sometimes emit weird smoke or freeze with the blue screen of death, I’m an otherwise quirky machine who generally gets the job done. I’m worlds away from that horribly damaged typewriter.”
    .-= Sarah´s last blog .."Glee" Fails in Representations =-.

  22. “Wheelchair Bound”? That sounds like a lovable movie about a boy and his pet. Gag me.

    I personally have only said “he can’t walk” or “she uses a wheelchair”. I’ve never called them “wheelchair users” as if that’s part of their personality.

  23. So, my question is, if “disabled” and “differently abled” are out as generic terms for someone who’s clearly moving through the world in a different way than I am (either with or without the aid of a wheelchair or some other equipment), is there another suitable term?

    Eh, I use “person with a disability” all the time. In your example of the man who needs extra time to get around (and doesn’t have a mobility aid, I’d assume), I’d just go with “He has a disability so it takes him a bit longer” without going into a lot of detail unless it’s needed.

    When Don was using a cane, I’d describe him as “using a cane”. Now I tend to go with “he’s a full-time wheelchair user”.

    In North America, people generally aim towards “people with disabilities” (people-first language). In the UK, people use “disabled person”, because they have a different model of disability there (barriers to access have disabled the person).

  24. Were the two first people who mentioned “high functioning” autism being sarcastic? I wasn’t clear on that.

    I dislike “high functioning” because it’s used to divide and conquer. It’s also used as an excuse to not make supports available. Apparently I’m so high functioning I need far less help than the average non-disabled person! How convenient! Another reason to ignore her!
    .-= Anemone´s last blog ..Asians in the Vancouver film industry =-.

  25. I can’t speak for anyone else, but yes. I did mean ‘specially fond’ in an entirely sarcastic sense; apologies if that was unclear. I purely hate the entire formulation and have ranted about it (as some of the other contributors can attest to) with varying degrees of bitterness and spite depending on how I feel on any given day. I’ve likewise complained about intelligence — it’s not a thing that can be measured; it’s a judgement on how valuable (or worthless) a person is and generally reduces to how well a person is able to conform to privileged society upon demand.

    You’re right; that is a label used to keep support from those who could benefit from it. I could (and do) talk, though I mostly prefer not to. Text is much more comfortable for me. Text where I’m in a room alone with a network mediating communication is even more so. But I did really well on standardized tests. I got good grades in classes where I didn’t have a personality conflict with the teacher. Sure and I failed every class in the 7th grade because things were so awful for me socially, but I couldn’t possibly be autistic. They were the kids who never talked and had to wear helmets ’cause they kept bashing their heads into stuff. Kids like me weren’t autistic. We were just weird.

    And miserable. And harming ourselves in other ways. But that was our fault. If we weren’t so weird we wouldn’t be so unhappy.

  26. Maybe I’ve read too many pioneer novels, but when I hear “wheelchair bound” I think of a bunch of wheelchair users heading off into the sunset, to find a land of plenty, opportunity, and really nice wheelchairs.
    .-= Lis´s last blog ..God, I can’t even. =-.

  27. Lis, now I have some rollicking Western-style ballad in my head and each verse ends with “Wheelchair bound!” booming out.

    It also gives the incorrect impression that once you’re in a wheelchair you’re stuck there and can never, ever leave—when actually someone might not use a wheelchair all the time.

    Anyway, yeah, this person’s an asshat.

  28. I appreciated this post not just for its primary focus, but because the analogy to “hammer user” and “computer user” was kind of an “AH-HA” for me.

    I use a smartphone with a nice memo function and a planner that’s linked to Google Calendar to help me keep track of things I’d otherwise forget and to give myself prompts that I need to get through the day. I also use it to surf the web and send email remotely, as well as make and receive phone calls. All of those things are functions that I couldn’t do on my own. Whether or not other people could do some of them doesn’t mean I should feel ashamed for using a tool to accomplish what I alone cannot.

  29. I hate HFA/LFA for all the reasons given, and also because they by necessity split me into little pieces. Unfortunately I don’t have the time to search out all the posts on my blog on the topic (and there are many).

Comments are closed.