Today in Journalism: The Disabled

Usually I relish picking apart a crappy article in the news for this feature, but today, I want to take a moment to rant about a phenomenon so widespread in the media that I don’t feel fair singling out one poor journalist for my ire. I’m cruel, but not unreasonably so. Also, I had a hard time picking between so many examples, but the first explanation makes me sound like a nicer person, so let’s go with that, ok? Excellent.

‘The disabled.’

Almost every time I read an article covering disability in some way or another, this noxious turn of phrase comes up. ‘The disabled’ say this and ‘the disabled’ do that and ‘the disabled’ feel this way about something. It’s a dehumanising way of referring to people with disabilities, as though we are a vague, collective mass that all think, behave, and act in the same way. It assumes that our experiences are shared and universal. ‘The disabled,’ you know, they are all alike.

This is not the first time this subject has come up here. Anna wrote about it in June.

This contributes to the de-humanization of disabled people. “The disabled” aren’t people, they’re a big collective noun who can’t be reasoned with, can’t be talked to, can’t be considered – they’re just to be placated, and dealt with, and put out of our minds as quickly as possible in case they sue us.

So did I, for that matter.

We are not a monolith. Or a collective noun. Nor are our disabilities the sum total of our identities.

Every time I encounter this phrasing, I am reminded that people think we are interchangeable, that we do not think and act independently, that we are just a kind of amorphous mass over there somewhere. You know. The disabled. I need look no further than the comments section of this very site to know that people with disabilities do not, in fact, agree with each other on everything. That we do not, in fact, have the same lived experiences. Nor do we conceive of disability in the same way, have the same ideas about how to address issues we deal with in our daily lives. I, for example, cannot be interchanged with commenter Astrid. Astrid and I even share some disabilities! But we are not members of the Borg.

People treat us like we are. It is assumed that accommodations are one size fits all, for example, which has real world consequences for people who need accommodations. Writing off an entire group of people with a collective noun is a neat way to shove them in a box and not think about them, and when that collective noun is in widespread and acceptable use (a number of journalism style guides approve ‘the disabled’), society internalises the attitudes that go along with it.

The media seems to  have learned that it’s not ok to say ‘the women’ or ‘the gays,’ referring to an entire group of people with a collective noun, like they are a flock of sheep. It has been suggested that this is not very helpful, that it tends to strip people of their humanity. Yet, the same has not been extended to people with disabilities. We are still ‘the disabled,’ viewed as a generic collective, in most media outlets. Exact phrasing varies from journalist to journalist and some are better about it than others, clearly making a conscious choice to humanise us by using a more appropriate phrasing when referring to members of the disabled community.

‘The disabled’ is not just a problem because it’s a reminder that people think we are all the same. It is also a reduction of our identities to our disabilities. And people feel free saying it about individual disabilities, too. ‘The bipolar.’ ‘The borderline.’ ‘The paraplegic.’ And so on. This framing reminds us that this is all we are; that our identities consist wholly of a single noun. You can aspire to nothing in life because you’re ‘the disabled.’

Asking people to say ‘person with…’ or ‘disabled person’ sounds nitpicky. It sounds fussy. We get challenged on it all the time. But it’s not unreasonable. It’s a request that people consider the fact that a huge percentage of the population is disabled, and there’s no way that, say, 20% of the people in the United States think, behave, and feel in exactly the same way. We are all individuals. We are all different.

We are not ‘the disabled.’

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

6 thoughts on “Today in Journalism: The Disabled

  1. As a journalist with disabilities, I totally agree. But I’m also very glad you didn’t pick one journalist out for criticism because as I’m sure you realise, sometimes our best efforts to use the language we think is most appropriate and sensitive for a situation is overridden by editors and subeditors at the last minute and there’s literally nothing we can do about that. There really needs to be a culture shift in society as a whole; the profession will then reflect this. I hope.
    Diane´s last blog post ..also not seen at…

  2. I’m in total agreement with you here, but it would have been good if you’d made the distinction between use of “the disabled” (ugh) and “the disabled community”, which some (albeit not many yet) are starting to use instead. The latter at least recognises that we are a group brought together by our disbilities, not just our disbilities.
    Those that mention the community, while they still havve a way to go, have at least made the first step, and we should recognise this.

  3. You know what other group I see get this treatment a lot? “The elderly.”

    I can’t think when was the last time I saw thoughtful language in mainstream media referring to people who are over 65. It’s almost always, “The elderly.” Sometimes, “The aged” or “elders.”

    I wonder if this will change as the Baby Boomer generation gets older.

  4. The definate article “the” used to describe a group of people is a form of lingistic disassociation. It is rarely (apart from those with interalised discrimation) used by members within the group itself. In the UK the terms ‘the elderly’ and ‘the children’ are commobly used.

    To me the term ‘disabled’ is an adjective used to describe a certain set of circumstances. The prefix ‘dis’ comes to us from the Greek meaning ‘apart from …’ or ‘without’, while the sufix comes from Latin and orginally meant ‘legal ability’. I would use the term far wider than simply issues about people with impairments. Nelson Mandella stated at his trial that as a black man he was disabled under the aparthied system, likewise all Saudi women are disabled by not being aloud to vote in their country.

    Vic Finklestein once pointed out that disabled people come from all sections of society, have different politics, have different impairments, etc. and that the only thing that unities us, is the commonality of the discrimination and oppression we face.

  5. Sometimes I wonder why the term disabled/person with a disability is seen as the right term while handicapped is seen as offensive. I mean, when you think about what they actually mean, handicapped seems more positive.

    I’m totally in the standard position of preferring the word disabled and wincing when I hear the word handicapped, but it seems kind of a weird way for things to turn out.

  6. ‘The disabled’ always reminds me of ‘the children’. Because we think of kids as A) not having the same legal rights and B) in need of some protection from adults, ‘the children’ doesn’t usually bother me in the way ‘the disabled’ does. But the exact reasons ‘the children’ doesn’t usually rankle are among the ones that ‘the disabled’ gets under my skin.

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