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How The Language Of Special Education Is Evolving

Young woman with charm bracelet
LA Johnson/NPR
Young woman with charm bracelet
LA Johnson/NPR

When we're reporting on special education, we inevitably run up against questions of how we should refer to students with disabilities and to the disabilities themselves.

It's a minefield, comparable to the tensions and complexity of writing about race and ethnicity.

It's important to get it right. As journalists, of course, we want to be accurate. And clear. And we want to avoid perpetuating stereotypes or giving offense.

There are broader issues as well — not just for reporters but for teachers, parents, administrators, even the United States Supreme Court. The words we use and the ways we refer to people mirror — and shape — our perceptions, our attitudes, our behavior.

So where to begin? The "r" word has fallen out of use, and good riddance. "Handicapped," too, for the most part. Generally we don't refer to people as "disabled," as in "he's a disabled student." One good rule of thumb: Svoid adjectives. They too easily become labels. Instead, try "students with disabilities."

From there, though, the rules get more complicated. And so, for help, I called up Kristin Gilger. She's an associate dean at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

And she's the director there of the National Center on Disability and Journalism — where they've put together a style guide to help all of us navigate this minefield.

"Someone once said, 'words matter,' and they do," Gilger told me. "In the journalistic context, there's the matter of being accurate, and that's of course our primary concern."

She said it's important, if you're going to put someone in a category, to make sure they really belong there. Take blindness, for example. What does it mean to be truly blind?

Here's what the NCDJ style guide says:

Use the term blind only when the person has complete loss of sight and the term legally blind when the person has almost complete loss of sight. Other terms also may be acceptable. It is best to ask the person which term he or she prefers and take that into consideration. Commonly used terms include:

Limited vision: Acceptable when a person is not legally or completely blind

Low vision: Acceptable when a person is not legally or completely blind

Partially sighted: Used most often in British publications but acceptable if a person is not legally or completely blind

Visually impaired: This general term describes a wide range of visual functions, from low vision to total blindness. It is generally considered acceptable, although, like the term hearing impaired, some may object to it because it describes the condition in terms of a deficiency.

And that leads to a really good point, one Gilger made over and over in our conversation: When in doubt, "our advice to the journalist is to ask the person you're interviewing."

There are larger issues at stake here beyond accuracy. Like being inclusive with your audience.

"When you write about minority or immigrant communities, it's the same thing," Gilger explained. "If you don't understand where they're coming from, their point of view, the meaning of the language they use about themselves, you're not connecting to that community."

And fundamentally there's an issue here of how we perceive and define another human being.

You have to be careful, Gilger says, not to "define the whole person as their handicap. You're not an autistic person, you're a person who's been diagnosed with an autistic disorder. That distinguishes between one aspect of a person and the whole person."

Otherwise, there's a danger of defining people by what they can't do. And implying that somehow that person is, as the style guide says, "suffering or living a reduced quality of life."

Gilger gave me a quick example: "You could make the analogy that you're not a good artist." So, she asked, does that mean I'm "art-deficient"? And would that be the one thing I'd want to read in a single sentence that describes me? It's the same thing: using adjectives to focus on the thing you can't do.

Tough Calls

I asked Gilger what word or issue the center receives the most questions about. Her answer was, to me, surprising: wheelchairs.

"Yeah, it still tends to be the wheelchair thing. 'Wheelchair-bound'? Or, 'confined to a wheelchair'? Or is it 'uses a wheelchair'?"

There's quite a detailed explanation on the site if you want the full answer.

Here's another tough call: "When we first started, it was physical disability. But the ones we find more challenging today are mental disabilities. That's a complex and growing area of concern."

Autism alone is a huge challenge.

"It wasn't that long ago," Gilger said, "we were just saying 'autistic.' " But, as medical science and public awareness have advanced, "the language has to evolve too to keep up with that."

And she emphasized that all this isn't about hewing to some notion of political correctness. "It's about being accurate."

Of course, accuracy is a moving target.

The style guide has recently been updated, "a process that took us more than a year and a half," Gilger said in an email. "However, we do consider it a living document; that is, we keep making changes and updates as the language evolves and as people point things out to us."

Working with a graduate assistant and an advisory board, Gilger starts with a word, then they do some Googling and perhaps talk with outside groups. And they're still coming across new, unfamiliar terms, like "late-deafened," which is used to refer to "people who lost their hearing later in life."

Of the 71 full entries in the style guide, Gilger says, 44 are not addressed in the Associated Press Stylebook, the standard reference guide used by many journalists, including us here at NPR.

"There is widespread disagreement in the disability community. We're trying to find the mainstream," she explained. "We don't want to be too far behind, or so far ahead that we're using language people don't understand."

This story has been updated from an earlier version published in June 2014.

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