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.
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.
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.’