Journalism is ableist, down to its language

Recently, the AP Stylebook updated its entries on covering disabilities.

As a disabled journalist, all I see are baseline definitions for terms such as “ableism” that lack depth and nuance. While it is a start that the bare minimum has been met — there are actually entries about covering disability — that is not enough, as there are many ways that journalists should be better.

Here’s how the stylebook defines “ableism,” which itself is a new entry:

Discrimination or prejudice against people with disabilities; the belief that typical abilities — those of people who aren’t disabled — are superior. A concept similar to racism, sexism and ageism in that it includes stereotypes, generalizations and demeaning views and language. It is a form of discrimination or prejudice against people with disabilities.

While this entry provides the baseline definition of ableism, it still ends up oversimplifying this nuanced and often overlooked form of oppression. Because disabilities can relate to mental and physical health — ranging from chronic illnesses to developmental disabilities — there are many ways ableism shows up in journalism, whether casual or overt. For example, when many reports said that former President Donald Trump “mocked” a disabled reporter instead of saying that former President Trump was being ableist. Refusing to call ableism what it is is a form of ableism.

Entries themselves can be ableist because they lack nuance of what disabilities encompass. Because these entries are just the surface of a very nuanced topic, journalists could be much more prone to perpetuating the harm they seek to minimize, especially since ableism and disability justice haven’t been widely addressed in society, let alone in journalism.

How journalists portray disabled subjects is important. Ableism is still very ingrained into the fabric of society, to the point that most people don’t even know or realize that what they are doing is ableist.

Some of the new or updated entries within the AP Stylebook display casual ableism. In the expanded entry for “disabilities,” the stylebook states:

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Be specific about the type of disability, or symptoms. For example: The woman said the airline kicked her family off a plane after her 3-year-old, who has autism, refused to wear a mask. She said her son became upset because he does not like to have his face touched.

People are not under any obligation to specify their symptoms or their disabilities to be taken seriously. 

An alternative, more informed way to write the example given in the entry could be: “The woman said the airline kicked her family off a plane after her autistic 3-year old refused to wear a mask. She said the refusal to wear a mask relates to her son’s disability.” 

Listing out the symptoms can give the idea that a disability looks a specific way, but disability is multifaceted.

Disabled folks can live their lives with or without accommodations or changes with accessibility, but there is still a societal expectation that a disabled person has to look, behave, or live in a certain way.

These expectations are scattered throughout the new, updated, and expanded entries regarding disabilities within the AP Stylebook, and throughout journalism and the media at large. The guidance to “be specific” about a disability — or the symptoms of a disability — also has the connotations that disabilities have to look one way or the other and reinforces societal expectations.

The AP Stylebook’s guidance of “be specific” reinforces the notion that disabled people have to keep explaining their symptoms or disabilities to be taken seriously. Disabled people often spend lifetimes having to justify having “off” reactions to what an able-bodied and/or neurotypical person otherwise finds to be “normal” or “fine,” such as having sensory issues from wearing a mask.

A disabled person shouldn’t have to jump through hoops and go to great lengths just to justify their disabilities, their existence, or their experiences. However, the AP Stylebook’s guidelines keep reinforcing the myth that disabled people need to justify their existence. 

Over the years, the way the media portrays disabled people has often been extreme and visible, whether they have a physical or mental disability. A physically disabled person is often portrayed as someone who is in a wheelchair, or has other physical difficulties that are in one’s face; mental disabilities are shown as someone who is not at a typical “functioning” level.

In actuality, there are many instances in which disabled people don’t have visible disabilities — you can’t see that a person is deaf, you can’t see that a person is autistic, you can’t see that a person has traumatic brain injuries. Ableism looks different for each of the three disabilities mentioned, as well.

The AP Stylebook refers to accessibility and accommodations as “needs or services” under its new entry for “special needs, special education:”

When possible, avoid these terms [“special needs, special education”]. While they remain in wide use in education and law, many view them as euphemistic and offensive. Instead, aim to be specific about the needs or services in question.

While the Stylebook is right that the phrases “special needs” and “special education” are to be avoided, “needs” and “ services” are also phrases that should not be used to refer to accessibility because, similar to “special needs” and “special education,” they are demeaning and patronizing to a disabled person.

Using the phrase “accessible” (and variations of the word such as “accessibility”) or “accommodations,” depending on the context, is more appropriate because it tells a person: “This is something we are doing in order to make things more accessible for disabled people.” Additionally, accessibility and accommodations don’t look the same for every disabled person. 

The disabilities entry does note to ask if a person would rather use person-first or identity-first language. Where person-first language would state “person with a disability,” putting the disability as an adjective after the person, identity-first language states “disabled person,” using the disability as a descriptor of a person’s identity. But asking shouldn’t just be a recommendation — the default when covering disabled people should always be to ask how they would prefer to be identified if their disability appears in the story. 

As journalists, our job is to minimize harm. Asking a disabled subject what they are most comfortable with is one surefire way to minimize harm, ensuring accessibility, accommodating and adapting to them, and ensuring that there is as little ableism as possible in the copy, such as editors educating themselves and finding resources put into the public by disabled advocates about best practices on how to reduce ableism in copy.

Jen Ramos is a freelance journalist and a baseball analyst in the California Central Valley. This piece was edited by Janelle Salanga. Copy editing by Ethan Edward Coston.

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