The Associated Press Chooses Words That Don't Hurt
04/11/2013 - 14:27
Steven Eidelman
Steve Eidelman
Steve Eidelman

The headline from the Associated Press read “Entry on mental illness is added to AP Stylebook.” Cheers went up in certain circles when this came out.

As someone who has spent his entire career on public policy and developmental disabilities, in jobs ranging from operating direct service programs, to working on policy in Washington to now teaching and studying policy, I have served as a background source for reporters for two decades: one of those people who helps with resources, ideas and brainstorming. All too often, after working hard with and for a reporter, a terrific article is published. With a horrible headline.  A reporter’s story about people with intellectual disabilities working in real jobs in industry ends up with a headline like, “Retarded Get Real Jobs.”

When you question a reporter about this, they throw up their hands and say, “It's the editors.” Well, editors follow Associated Press style too, and now, thanks to a change in the AP Stylebook, which shapes how American journalists think about and put things, such headlines will hopefully be far less common in the future. Because now this Bible of American journalism is calling for journalists to use “people- first language."

When journalists think in this way, a headline reading, say, “Retarded Get Real Jobs,” will become something like “Employees With Disability Set Sales Records At Acme Widgets.”

People-first language – talking about the person first, then adding a descriptor about a person’s disability when needed - is not just political correctness. It is much more. Language delivers messages. It can stigmatize, dehumanize, convey that one person has power and authority over another person.

What we call people matters. Kathie Snow (www.disabilityisnatural.com), an author, disability advocate and public speaker, offers a poster “Your words, attitudes and actions impact my life more than my disability.” Words matter.

As Jews, we know how language, and labeling, can impact a person’s life and affect an entire group of people. People used pejoratives to talk about us, sometimes as code words. And it still happens today.  Language can add dignity, or be a sign of disrespect, devaluing, stigmatizing and exclusionary. And language and terminology change over time.

For example: Even the professional association working with people who have an intellectual and/or a developmental disability has gone through five changes in name, and nomenclature.

1876: Association of Medical Officers of American Institutions for Idiotic and Feebleminded Persons
1906: American Association for the Study of the Feebleminded
1933: American Association on Mental Deficiency
1987: American Association on Mental Retardation
2007: American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

All too often, the terminology and language themselves end up being harmful and damaging to people impacted by those world and labels. That's why the association working on behalf of people with dintellectual isabilities has changed its name so many times. Words change our perceptions of a person. Saying that John is a schizophrenic sets off in people’s minds a certain set of preconceived notions that may or may not apply to John. Saying John has schizophrenia, or has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, is more accurate.  Saying, this is my friend John, and he likes the same music I do, says something else entirely. A medical description of a diagnostic condition may be needed for eligibility for public programs or for insurance reimbursement, but for communicating that John and I like the same music … not so much.

The terminology that conveys a person’s diagnosis can indicate that the person has less value, potential, humanity. People with disabilities aren’t broken people even though they may need support to get through the day. Their disability is part of who they are, but not all of who they are. The words we use to describe people matter more than most people seem to think. By framing what we call people in words that do not connote a defect, or a lack of wholeness, we help include people with disabilities in their communities. The change in the AP stylebook, because it is used by so many professional communicators, should help make this happen. Your words have power whether or not you are a journalist.

Words can help or hurt. Which do you choose?





Steven Eidelman is the H. Rodney Sharp Professor of Human Services Policy and Leadership at the University of Delaware.  Professor Eidelman is a former Executive Director of The Arc of the United States and currently also serves as the Executive Director of the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation. He is a past President of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD) and is Senior Advisor to the Chairman and CEO of Special Olympics.  He is on the Board of The Open Society Institute’s Mental Health Initiative, based in Budapest. His recent efforts have focused on leadership development for practicing disability professionals and on implementation of Article 19 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, focusing on deinstitutionalization. 

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