“But what do we CAAAALL them?” – the language of shackling

[This has been cross-posted at FWD/Forward.]

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.

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?

Categories: language, media

Tags: , ,

18 replies

  1. Thanks for the link to the style guide! Very handy to have something like that…on hand. I freely admit I still constantly correct myself for using ablist language but I hope the fact I am at least aware of the problematic nature of ablist language and work to stop myself using it, counts for something. I get very frustrated trying to explain the concept to people who just do not want to ‘get it’ though. Same goes with racism etc too. Some people (like the journo you speak of above) simply do not want to get it.

  2. Unfortunately, the link to the style guide doesn’t work. Well it works but the style guide is not longer there…

  3. Thanks for alerting me, Bri- it should work now. There are a zillion of them out there, this was just the first Australian one that popped up in a search.

  4. Nothing to add to the comments in the article other than thanks for the style guide, and alert you to the fact I’m going to be stealing the term “meatwire”. It is too awesome not to use, and would fit perfectly into a story that I eventually want to tell.
    Which actually brings up a completely different question. With writing for news or analysis you obviously should try to avoid being an ass and doing hurtful and shitty things… but where does this line get drawn when you’re writing fiction? I think I can tell how strongly I’m willing to portray trans-hatred or homophobia in most of their flavors, but the balancing of how far to push other privileged actions and views in my characters isn’t one I’ve considered yet. Considering that discriminatory and hateful people are likely to float to the top in the situation I’m writing about, I think I need to spend some time pondering it.
    mmmph. food for thought, thanks for the article.

  5. Huh, it does seem to be a coinage. Now I’m intrigued by your impending story, polerin…

  6. Can’t say too much other than it’s an unpleasant story about the abuse of power and the glorifying of privilege.. even though I wouldn’t have used those words when I started on it years ago. I’m not exactly a quick writer, and my art has taken a good bit of time to mature enough for me to consider moving forward with the writing. I’m glad I’ve waited though, the intervening years lead me here and to other places where I’ve learned how oblivious I was to exactly what I wanted to talk about.
    One bit for it though… this is the first character I’ve managed to really firm in.

  7. Where’s your comment, Lauredhal? I don’t see it at all on David’s post.
    And jeebus that “drug users” thing *is* bizarre.

  8. Not a conversation I have had yet but the PSA’s on the ABC (and other stations perhaps? ) about autism are just horrible. I absolutely loathe the idea of hamstringing the future of my child by contributing to a culture of ableism, all in the name of wringing sympathy and money out of people. I am working on a letter.

  9. Where’s your comment, Lauredhal? I don’t see it at all on David’s post.

    That’s why I put it here. I believe they fully moderate those blogs.

  10. Is “fully moderate” a euphemism for “don’t allow people who actually know what they’re talking about within coo-ee”?

  11. Both of Laurelhed’s comments are there. She hasn’t been censored.

  12. katarina: Yes, it appeared this morning. And it’s “Lauredhel”, ta.

  13. No problem, Lauredhal. It was there yesterday too.

  14. Wow, the majority of comments in that thread are awful! Seriously, “PC dimwits”? Or the rant about the use of the word accessible, “does that mean a regular toilet isn’t accessible, ha ha ha”. Actually, yes. For some people with disabilities, a regular toilet is *not* accessible. Stuck-up arse stains >:-(
    Here’s a novel concept: how about allowing people with disabilities define themselves, instead of trying to decide for them? Shocking, I know. But it just might work!
    {hugs} Lauredhel, you shouldn’t have to put up with teeth-grindingly arrogant arseholery.

  15. “Wheelchair user” has long been settled as language in the US, even if ignored. It has been listed in the AP’s (Associated Press) Language Guidebook (not exact title) since the mid1980s. I reminded the NYTimes of that when it had an article about an author getting a McArthur Award (Dubus), that we’re not “wheelchair bound” or
    “confined to wheelchair”. I think it is up to us, wheelchair users, to say how we wish to be labeled. The argument got played out in the US in the 1980s, but, sometimes ignored, as I said.
    “wheelchair restricted” implies a section of audience reserved for wheelchair users ONLY. (Without humor, where’d we be?)

  16. PS (CFS/ME is the ps disease, I named it) Alas, there are segregated sections for wheelchair users at various arenas, such as baseball stadiums, some auditoriums.
    My preference is an aisle wide enough to sit in my wheelchair with spouse/aide or friend, seated in aisle seat next to me, or behind, if it’s “movable” chairs (not to be confused with mobile chairs = wheelchairs). This kind of discussion brings out the wicked wit in me. Along with the serious.

  17. Here in the U.S., the ignorant, priveleged asshats who whine when people ask them to examine the implications of the words they use and so nobly declare that they won’t be bothered to walk on eggshells to avoid offending some oversensitive lesser being are the ones who blow a gasket when a store employee wishes them “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”.
    Really, what is so hard about asking actual people how they wish to be addressed or referred to and taking steps to avoid being a jerk?

    • @plainjane

      are the ones who blow a gasket when a store employee wishes them “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”

      I had never made that connection, and it’s so very true. Thanks for the insight.
      PS I wonder how to frame that comparison most effectively to make an educable point.

%d bloggers like this: