Personal Note: To be completely transparent, this is a cause that is near and dear to my heart. Because there are many — including family members — who are a part of my life who have disabilities. But I’ll get on with the blog post now.
Many reasons for writing about people with disabilities
Many writers may want to tell a real person’s story in a newspaper or magazine article, or even use a character with a disability in a work of fiction, like the main character of Shaun Murphy in the TV series The Good Doctor, or Dustin Hoffman’s character Raymond in Rain Man, or even Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird. How a character with a mental disability interacts with their world makes for good drama.
It’s actually a trend to include characters with autism these days. But, how to do it well? This is definitely not a subject to be taken lightly.
But fear not. There are organizations and websites for writers to consult if they have questions.
According to its website, the National Center on Disability and Journalism was founded in 1998 by freelance photographer Suzanne Levine, to raise awareness of how the news media can better cover people with disabilities. Also, the Conscious Style Guide has a section of its guide that is focused on ability and disability.
I believe these sites are good for any writer to consult, whether they write fiction or nonfiction. Taking a look at these sites is a good way to get started if you want to write about a real person or a character with special needs, especially so if you don’t know anyone you could personally consult, so as to get a good idea of what their world is like.
People-first and identity-first language
The terms stated above can be confusing for writers just starting out writing about disabilities. People-first language basically just means putting the person first, before the disability, showing how much they are like everyone else.
In addition to the wonderful resources above, the CDC has an easy-to-follow guide on people-first language. In this guide, there is a graphic with information on how to use people-first language.
There are many examples the guide uses, and the ones that follow are just a handful mentioned:
When you use people-first language, if you were going to discuss a person or group of people who have a disability, you would say “a person with a disability,” not “the disabled,” or “the handicapped.” This sort of language is outdated and is considered by many to be insulting.
For discussing someone who uses a wheelchair, use those words, not “confined or restricted to a wheelchair,” or “wheelchair-bound.” if you sense a theme here, you’d be right: this kind of language has a negative connotation, and can make it seem like a tragedy that the person has to use a wheelchair. In reality, it’s a tool that gives them freedom.
When you are discussing a person with an intellectual, cognitive, or developmental disability, describe them just like that, and never with the following terms: Retarded, slow, simple, moronic, defective, afflicted, or special person. This type of language is negative, and all of the above words could be considered offensive.
However. Another thing to consider when writing about people with disabilities is that some folks really connect within a community.
In effect, some people really do want to first belong to the group of people that they want to represent. So, some people do want to be called autistic. Or, Downs. Or blind. Because that is their reality, that they have to live with, every day of their lives. Examples include an autistic child, a Downs adult, a blind man, etc.
Others use these terms interchangeably. In essence, it’s all personal preference.
There are some people who do take offense to one or the other side. So, how do you choose? In essence, use your best judgment.
Also, use proper research methods. When writing about real people, be sure to ask what their preference is. When writing fiction, use the term/s that seem to fit the characters and the people around them.
There is one more resource that I was able to find, for those who write children’s books specifically, called Disability in Kid Lit. On this site is a page called Introduction to Disability Terminology that reiterates some of the information I just mentioned above, but goes more into depth on this subject than I have done here in this post.
Also, this page mentions how to write about a person using functioning labels, which describe the nature of someone’s disability, and are quite common. Here’s a quote from the site on this topic:
“To specifically describe someone’s situation, you can use language like: “Devon lives in a group home and relies on disability benefits for income. He has strong verbal skills, but misses social cues.” It takes more words than “high-functioning” and “low-functioning,” but it also conveys more–and more useful–information. If the character’s situation and skills are genuinely relevant, one might as well be specific and accurate.”
“The above is autism-specific because “low-functioning” and “high-functioning” are commonly used when discussing autistic people, but a lot can be extrapolated to other conditions as well.”
To Sum Up
There is so much to keep in mind when writing about people and/or characters when they have disabilities. People want to be treated fairly, in life and in print.
So in general, when in doubt, use neutral terms.
And, do your research. You can consult someone who knows and/or cares for someone with a specific disability, and you can find information on how to use these terms in the sources mentioned above.
Also, consulting with someone who is well-versed in disability terms, like I am, can help. Please comment below with any questions you may have. Thanks for reading!